Ernest Hemingway
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954
From 1926 original
247 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2006

Ernest Hemingway opens the novel with this quote from Gertrud Stein. “You are the lost generation” and a passage from Ecclesiastes in which the title “the sun also rises” appears and the view that life goes on even though we individual humans pass What follows is the brilliantly written story of a group of those lost generation folks in the 1920s, ex-pats living in Paris, then visiting Spain. The central figure, surely closely related to Hemingway himself, is a newspaper writer, a loner in love with Brett Ashley, but neither of them able to live a life which would or could have enough commitment to make a love relationship work. Nevertheless, Brett and Jake do have a beautiful friendship and mutual support.

The other major characters are rather sad folks, lost, without meaning, and often, seemingly before the phrase was invented, very ugly Americans. There is Michael, the man Brett seems destined to marry and tortured by her constant infidelities, an ex-boxer, Robert Cohn, pathetically in love with Brett but scorned by her, and fairly likeable Bill Groton. This group parties constantly, staying drunk more than sober, seemingly to escape the meaninglessness of their highly privileged lives, and to convince themselves they are having fun.

At one point late in the novel Brett makes a rather humane decision to spare a young lover, an up and coming bull fighter, from being destroyed by her. She tells Jake:

“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.


“It’s sort of what we have instead of God."

I read that claim as less about the notion of God of religion than as a comment of a value system which gives a person a reason to live with dignity, hope, even pride. Such moments are rare for these sad even pathetic folks. Hemingway captures their lives with amazing power and vivid description.

There is a very long and famous section where the whole group goes to Pamplona for the festival of the running of the bulls. Hemingway’s account is both gripping and as vivid as photographs.

However, a secondary theme in that section is what ugly Americans they are. (Actually Brett and Michael are British). Taking advantage of their relative wealth to live high above the life-style of the locals, they sneer at the people’s quite beautiful lives and culture. In one place Jake says:

“The waiter recommended a Basque liqueur called Izzarra. He brought in the bottle and poured a liqueur-glass full. The veritable flower of the Pyrenees. It looked like hair-oil and smelled like Italian strega. I told him to take the flowers of the Pyrenees away and bring me a vieux marc. The marc was good. I had a second marc after the coffee.

“The waiter seemed a little offended about the flowers of the Pyrenees, so I over-tipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you, you only have to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and could want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France next morning and I tipped everyone a bit too much at the hotel to make more friends, and left on the morning train for San Sebastian. At the station I did not tip the porter more than I should have because I did not think I would ever see him again. I only wanted a few good French friends in Bayonne to make me welcome in case I should come back there again. I know that if they remembered me their friendship would be loyal.”

It is ironic that I’m writing these comments on an airplane from Barcelona to Chicago, returning home from a month in Greece, Turkey and Spain where I engaged in such practices myself. However, I do think that in the main my entry into the local cultures was in such a way that I tried to avoid much of such behavior as I could. It is difficult to avoid, and many of the tourist workers in many countries even encourage such behavior in the visitors to increase their own earnings.

This great novel of Hemingway should not be missed. It is alive today as it was when published nearly 80 years ago.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett