the 1951 Modern Library dust jacket for Ernest Hemingways The Sun Also Rises (1926)

The Sun Also Rises

  • Author:  Ernest Hemingway (1899  –  1961)
  • Rank:  #46
  • Published:  1926
  • Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Pages:  247
  • First Line:  “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”
  • Last Lines:  “ ‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’  Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic.  He raised his baton.  The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.  ‘Yes,’ I said.  ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’ ”
  • ML Edition:  #170  –  two dust jackets  (1935, 1946) – Bennet Cerf was unable to get a renewal on the Scribner’s authors and thus Hemingway, Wolfe and Fitzgerald were gone from the Modern Library by the mid-50’s
  • Film Version:  1957  (**.5 – dir. Henry King),  1984 TV film
  • Acclaim:  All-TIME List; Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #45
  • First Read:  Spring 1994

The Novel:  There are books that desperately want to speak for a generation (I’m looking at you Douglas Coupland).  Then there are books that actually, magnificently find a voice that does manage to speak for a generation.  They are novels that manage to describe a specific place and time and manage to evoke in that place and time a theme that millions flock to, saying “That’s what it felt like.”  Hunter famously said “no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”  It was Gertrude Stein who said “You are all a lost generation,” but it was Hemingway who made it the epigraph of his greatest novel – the one that made him a household name and forever enshrined his place in American literature.

From the very opening lines, Hemingway establishes his style.  With that opening description of Robert Cohn, of how much it meant to Cohn and how little to Jake Barnes, the emasculated narrator, we get a deeper understanding than other authors could have provided in an entire chapter.  There is much more to the novel than the words we read, and even in the words we read there are things hidden beneath the surface.  We have come in to the middle of the story of Jake and Brett and not everything that passes between them during the course of the novel is laid before our eyes.  Much like his great short story “Hills Like White Elephants”, he leaves us to actually think about what is going on.  This survives so well as his best novel because it does the best job of combining his stark narrative prose with the iceberg approach of leaving so much below the surface.  The later novels would continue with his masterful prose, but would leave less and less below the surface.

Just look at the way we actually find out about Jake and what the war has done to him: “Undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed.  That was a typically French way to furnish a room.  Practical, too, I suppose.  Of all the ways to be wounded.  I suppose it was funny.”  It is the scars of the aftermath of the war as much as the war itself that caused this generation to be lost.  In Russia, France and Britain it was literally a lost generation – so many young men left behind on the battlefield.  But there were also the Americans – those who fought and didn’t fight, yet retained the scars nonetheless.  “It was like certain dinners I remember from the war.  There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening.”  A war had been fought unlike anything the world had ever seen and how could you back to life after that?  So even those who hadn’t died become lost as well as this novel was the voice, not only for those who escaped, but for those longing to escape; it was the darker side of the Jazz Age.

But nothing in the novel is as wounding as those final words.  They are among the most memorable and most devastating closing lines of any novel.  So much of how I learned how to write came from the way that Philip Roth used those same lines in The Great American Novel as a devastating statement on Hemingway and American Literature and the whole hunt for the very idea of the great American novel, the same goal that Hemingway was thought to be hunting when he killed himself in the mountains of Idaho.  The words remain beyond him, a devastating indictment of the cost of war even beyond those left dead on the battlefield.

The mediocre film version of The Sun Also Rises (1957)

The Film: Hemingway adaptations are out of vogue now.  The only feature length English language film of a Hemingway novel since the 60’s was the mediocre version of Islands in the Stream back in 1977.  It didn’t used to always be that way.  Film versions of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls were nominated for Best Picture and the film version of To Have and Have Not is widely considered a classic and is the only film to involve the use of two Nobel Prize winning writers (because Faulkner wrote the screenplay).  I think perhaps the death knell for Hemingway films was the overexposure in the late 50’s / early 60’s that began with two relentlessly mediocre adaptations in 1957 – one of A Farewell to Arms and the one feature length film version of The Sun Also Rises.  It was directed by Henry King, the master of getting mediocre films like In Old Chicago and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing nominated for Best Picture (King is tied for third among directors with 7 films nominated for Best Picture – though he only managed two Best Director nominations).  It was written by Peter Viertel (the same man who went elephant hunting with John Huston on the set of The African Queen and turned it into the novel White Hunter, Black Heart) and produced by 20th Century-Fox head Richard D. Zanuck (who, famously, in the making of the film said “the kid stays in the picture” when Hemingway and stars Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner tried to get the young Robert Evans fired).  It even had a comeback performance from Errol Flynn, the first time he was ever talked about seriously for his acting, though his chances for an Oscar nomination were scuttled when Fox accidentally listed him as a star, making him only eligible for Best Actor.

So what the hell happened?  Why is it so boring?  Well, the casting of the leads is the first problem.  Casting Ava Gardner as Brett seems like it would be a great idea and casting Tyrone Power as Jake could certainly work (after all, he had been in The Razor’s Edge, which dealt with some of the same issues of a man back from the war).  However, this was not 1946.  Both of the leads were far too old to be playing these characters and it shows in every scene.  Power, though only 42, looked much older – a life of smoking and drinking had caught up with him and Gardner, though still beautiful, was not the same glamorous actress she was in the late 40’s.  And neither one of them had ever been powerhouses of acting.  They simply didn’t have the depth to play these characters.  Flynn actually is pretty good as the alcoholic Mike Campbell and Robert Evans isn’t bad, but in a story that is so tied up in the chemistry (or former lack of chemistry) of its stars it really needed to be better cast.  Granted, it could have been worse – the film version of A Farewell to Arms from the same year was produced by David O. Selznick, so, of course, starred Jennifer Jones and the performances of her and Rock Hudson were just embarrassing.  Nevertheless, it is sad that such a great novel has only had one try on the big screen and that it is so forgettable.