"Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)", by Ernest Hemingway

(actualisé le ) by Ray

This was Hemingway’s first major novel, published in 1927, better known under its later title The Sun Also Rises. It’s set essentially in the Paris of 1924 and in Pamplona, Spain, during the 7-day bullfight fiesta there.

The narrator is an American journalist-writer based in Paris (like Hemingway) who had participated in the first World War on the Austro-Italian front (like Hemingway), where he was wounded in a way most unfortunate for his future lovelife (unlike Hemingway, at least not physically). He spends most of his time in Paris wandering around the bars, brasseries, restaurants and nightspots where the Anglo-Saxon expatriate community then tended to congregate, where he constantly crosses paths with a former amour Lady Brett Ashley, an upper-class English modernite who lives on her wit and name, not to say her charms. He meets up with her again in Pamplona where he has gone with two friends to participate in the festivities there, centered on the then-not-as-famous-as-it-is-now bullrun through the city streets and a climactic bullfight, magnificently described.

For the first part of the book the narrator thus wanders around his favorite city, constantly meeting up with acquaintances with whom he shares conversations and drinks, and then moves along on his seemingly endless and possibly aimless search for ... something that he does not articulate and that the author leaves unspecified. And the atmosphere of that existential search is expressed in an original, systematic, exercise-de-style kind of way.

Does that not remind us of something ? Yes, this is decidedly reminiscent of Steven Dedalus’s day of roaming around the Dublin of 1905 in Ulysses. Was Hemingway familiar with Joyce’s epic work, published in Paris in 1922 by the only English-language bookstore in the city at that time? Did he ever meet up with Joyce at that bookstore, which Hemingway must have often vistited, or in one of the innumerable drinking spots frequented by the expatriate literary community? Was Hemingway interested in emulating Joyce’s idea of experimenting with language forms in a new way, in tune with the drive for technical experimentation then so predominant in other art forms? These considerations do tend to reinforce the interest of this important work, in my humble opinion.

The narrator being American, the vague à l’âme of the "lost generation" is copiously nourished by alcohol in almost every possible variety. And copious is hardly an appropriate word for the quantities that get routinely consumed morning, noon and night. Is the determined, agressive dinking, often culminating in crude rows and in one case serious fisticuffs, an expression of the désouevrement of the lost generation, or the cause of it, one might wonder? It is in any case impressive, bordering on the extravagant: for example, in the final goodbye dinner the narrator has already personally gotten through three bottles of fine wine before ordering another two for dessert for his ladylove (who sips a bit) and himself!

In any case, this is a story about disenchantment, told in a turgid, abrupt, bare style that effectively evokes the sparse mental horizons of the participants and the existential angst of the narrator, a style particularly well suited to the straightforward tell-it-like-it-is American way-of-being of the main protagonists. It must have seemed strikingly original at the time. Sentences are very short. The narrator recounts in minute detail his most mundane activities. He gets out of bad and shaves. He crosses the street to the café. He has a café and croissant and goes to the office. We are light-years away from Oblomov, where it takes Gontcharov an entire chapter to describe his unforgettable hero’s efforts to get out of bed in the morning! But though the novelty of the style has now worn off (as has been the case with Joyce’s sylistic extavangances), Hemingway’s understatement style is as effective as ever in engaging the reader to go beyond and beneath the surface narrative to empathize with the profound existential concerns being addressed.

And while literary life in Paris of the 1920s is an interesting subject, and women, wine and wondering about the meaning of life are important, there are nevertheless really significant things in life to be dealt with - such as bullfighting. That is the overriding theme of the last and very successful part of this novel. The mounting excitement in the air before the start of the fiesta, the religious processions which underline the higher significance of the event, the exhilaration, festivity and solidarity of the spectators, the solemnity of the occasion, the danger and blood and gore (human and animal) that are shed during various phases of the week-long ceremonial are tremendously well conveyed. This escapade to exotic Pamplona provides a striking contrast to the existential ennui experienced eveywhere else by the narrator, and nicely prepares the elegant dénouement in the final chapter.

Definitely to be recommended.

Arrow Books, 216 pages, £5.99