The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first serious success – published in 1926, only four years after James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is hard to imagine two books less like each other than these: Joyce, the great Irish modernist, exploring the limits of language (not to mention the patience and fortitude of his readers) and Hemingway, the great American exponent of plain language and tough, terse prose.
Anyone who wants a review, analysis, or crib notes about The Sun Also Rises has only to Google for them and there they are in abundance. I don’t intend to add to the plethora of words about this ground-breaking book except to make a case for why a lover of Australian literature should make the time to read it, and why wannabe Hemingways should tread carefully when they seek to emulate his style.
I think that anyone who’s a serious booklover should read at least some of the great 19th century classics: Pride and Prejudice; Jane Eyre: Great Expectations; Wuthering Heights; Silas Marner; a Thackeray, a Trollope; a Thomas Hardy; one of the Russians – preferably Tolstoy; something by Balzac; and something by Henry James. Yes, there could be endless arguments about these choices, which are basically just the classics that I read as a teenager. Yes, I could be more inclusive; more international; less Eurocentric; and yes, I could suggest a better gender balance or fewer dead white males. Blah-blah-blah. (I could even suggest an Australian classic as you might have expected me to). Well, there is nothing to stop people choosing other books as well, or substituting different authors and titles. My point is that these few would give any reader a sense of 19th century style and preoccupations, and would also demonstrate the universality of the human condition over time.
A reader with that kind of understanding of the development of the novel is then in a position to recognise the audacity of Hemingway’s departure from existing writing styles and his influence on 20th century writing. It’s also easy to understand his appeal: straightforward, direct, minimalist, easy to read. Anyone can whip through a Hemingway in a day or two. And because he was a master of his art it works: his stories are original, powerful, and haunting.
But alas for many who admire his writing, it’s too easy for copycat efforts to become tiresome reading. Few can achieve the impact that Hemingway did with short, declarative sentences, vivid images and simple prose. (A little too vivid if you don’t care for bullfighting!) Most writers need an adjective or adverb here and there if the prose is not to become pedestrian. Lyricism laid on with a trowel is painful to read, but it’s equally easy for minimalism to degenerate into paucity of vocabulary. Simplicity that lapses into dull, plodding sentences is all too common, especially in novels that feature the seamy side of life where the characters have the vocabulary of eight year olds.
It’s important to read Hemingway, and enjoyable too, but it seems to me that we have all moved on and his heyday is over. In a multicultural and global world, book characters ought not all sound the same, and writing styles should reflect the rich diversity of the cultures we share.
There’s a terrific review of this book at Hannah’s blog.
It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.