Ernest Hemingway: #68 The Sun Also Rises and #84 A Farewell to Arms

I might as well get this out of the way: I don’t like Hemingway.

I don’t like him. I don’t aggressively dislike him, so you can remove your fighting gloves. Rather, I lazily, passively, non-confrontationally dislike him. I’m not worked up about it—I just don’t understand the appeal.

Sure, if you’re the gun-toting, Ron Swanson-worshiping, carnivorous, hyper-masculine type, Hemingway is an obvious candidate for a literary crush (except you would never crush on a dude, because you’re also an obvious candidate for homophobia). But if you’re anything like me, Hemingway’s popularity is a little puzzling. His plotlines are erratic and half-baked. His characters are vapid and shallow (unless you subscribe to the “Iceberg Theory”—a topic I’ll sideswipe later, much like the Titanic). And his “style”? Well, now, we’re getting optimistic.

Hemingway’s output invariably reads like a first draft to me—like an outline he never got around to developing. It’s the bare bones of story and character; the Wikipedia version, sans emotion. It’s also repetitive, simplistic, and dull, as long as we’re counting transgressions. Without knowing its author, I would guess that The Sun Also Rises was a series of diary entries written by a ten-year-old with a moderate vocabulary and irresponsible parents.

Take this example:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta you had the feeling, even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action. It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.

So no, I don’t “get” Hemingway. Maybe he was good at other things that are not the subject of this blog. But writing? Not so much. I’d even bet good money that Hemingway would make for a tiresome Facebook friend, if he thinks this text is worth the ink:

I felt I was a fool to be going back into Spain. In Spain you could not tell about anything. I felt like a fool to be going back into it, but I stood in line with my passport, opened my bags for the customs, bought a ticket, went through a gate, climbed onto the train, and after forty minutes and eight tunnels I was at San Sebastian.

I’m sure the many, many Hemingway fans out in the great big “there” are just as baffled by my apathy as I am by their admiration. After all, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Around that same time, the New Yorker said he “may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer.” Hemingway critics and enthusiasts have called his style “lean,” “spare,” “athletic,” “hard-boiled,” “terse,” and “economical” (as if any of these descriptions were compliments).

In any case, his literary charms have apparently taken a flight path right over my head.

Perhaps the breakdown in communication between good ol’ Ernest and me lies with the so-called “Iceberg Theory,” or “theory of omission.” The theory cleverly rewrites the definition of good writing to include Hemingway, who wrote what most of us used to call bad writing. His claim to a fame bordering on literary immortality is a minimalistic style that dismisses context, detail, and theme, leaving intact only surface-level events and dialogue. Subtext, according to Hemingway, is more important than text—and it’s the audience’s job to read between the lines.

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Maybe he’s right, and maybe I’m wrong. MAYBE. Or maybe it’s just a matter of opinion, and there is no shame in my Jazz-Snob-reminiscent eye roll at all this iceberg nonsense. For me, Hemingway’s precious icebergs fall utterly flat. They’re not even icebergs. They’re just your mundane, mainstream ice sheets—the kind that are literally, physically depressing the entire country of Greenland. The kind that are, in their very essence, cold, and horrible, and boring.

EVEN MORE BORING AS A DIAGRAM

EVEN MORE BORING AS A DIAGRAM

Hemingway believed the strength of a story emerges from what isn’t there. But I remain camped out on the other side of the argument: The strength of a story emerges from what is there. What it comes down to, maybe, is that—at the spectator level, at least—I’d rather watch God spend six days painting the universe into existence than guess how the Big Bang created something out of nothing. And, given the choice, wouldn’t Hemingway join me? Wouldn’t he park himself right there next to me in a ridiculous turtleneck and pour me a glass of whiskey? Wouldn’t he??

So why all the iceberg absurdity?

To be fair, I thought A Farewell to Arms was an improvement over The Sun Also Rises, and can only assume The Old Man and the Sea is better still. Farewell, at least, meets war head-on, and greets love by name, and tries to tangle with my emotions instead of tango-ing right past them. Farewell has battlefields and hospitals and rowboats. Farewell has ever so slight suspense, and characters I almost cared about. Farewell has sex.

Well, almost sex.

But every time, the fatal tripwire is Hemingway’s iceberg-raw style. Yes, a couple of short and easy reads were welcome on a TBR list full of weighty, self-important, long-winded snoozers. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them any more than their stale, tedious counterparts.

Oh, and speaking of those laborious counterparts, let’s pay our dues to the over-hyped Hemingway-Faulkner rivalry. According to dubious sources, it all started sometime last century in a flurry of typewriters and tears.

While each respected the other’s talent, Hemingway and Faulkner took polarized approaches to writing. You’ve heard, by now, about Hemingway’s literary method: Brevity is the soul deathbed of wit. But what about Faulkner?

Faulkner, for his part, opted for impenetrable, abstract, stream-of-consciousness ramblings related out of order with dramatic literary flourishes. In other words, his iceberg isn’t just submerged in murky waters; it’s pretty much invisible to human eyes.

The most famous exchange between the two began with Faulkner commenting that Hemingway had never been known to use a word that would send a reader to the dictionary. Hemingway’s response:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?

I would hardly count myself among Faulkner’s groupie were he alive, but I can discern more beauty in a single sentence written by Faulkner than an entire novel written by Hemingway (and not just because they would be, in all likelihood, the same approximate length). Critics have long compared Hemingway’s style with journalism, especially given Hemingway’s background as a journalist. But we don’t seek the literary in a newspaper, do we? We seek facts, not frills.

When I pick up a classic, I’m not looking for brief and informative, or coy and mysterious. I’m looking for writing that sounds the depths of the human condition—not writing that taps quietly and impatiently at the surface, waiting for me to open the door myself.

Yes, Faulkner is a challenging knot to untie. But he’s more interesting than the limp shoelace that is Hemingway.

I’ll stop there. I think (and hope) you get the idea: The next time you happen across Hemingway OR Faulkner in your local bookstore, back away slowly. Whatever you do, don’t pick up For Whom the Bell Tolls or As I Lay Dying, and certainly don’t take them anywhere near the cash register.

The price you’ll pay will be your sanity.

Are They Two of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m too busy yawning to answer this question.

Favorite Quotes:

From The Sun Also Rises:

I never liked to hunt, you know. There was always the danger of having a horse fall on you.

“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”
“Yes.”
“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

From A Farewell to Arms:

“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”
“No,” I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

Read: 2014, 2015

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13 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway: #68 The Sun Also Rises and #84 A Farewell to Arms

  1. I was left cold by Farewell to Arms. There was the basis of a good story but his minimalist style seemed to rob it of the necessary emotion. So I never felt compelled to read anything g else especially since I had tried the Old Man and the Sea years ago and couldn’t get beyond about page 50. I dont quite go along with your assessment that his work reads like a first draft, to me it reads as if it has been Overworked with each revision weakening the overall effect.

    • I agree with your take on Farewell! There was certainly some interesting material to work with, but it reads incredibly flat.

      I did hear somewhere that he was an obsessive rewriter/self-editor, as you mentioned, but even if that’s true it’s not the impression I get from his novels — based mainly, I think, on the simplistic style and the ceaseless repetition. I would assume any editor worth his salt would get rid of half the text! But I suppose Hemingway had his own ideas…

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