Review: The shock of the new
A new book presents a surprising inside look at Ernest Hemingway's journey to literary acclaim
Michael Chevy Castranova
Lesley M.M. Blume chalks up several necessary and irrefutable points about Ernest Hemingway and his first novel in her fascinating, heavily researched “Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises.’”
One is that the novel itself, first published in 1926, marked a brazen, spectacular shift in the course of American novels — in subject matter and in writing style. His irredeemable characters — Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, et al. — were members of the newly named Lost Generation, who most certainly also had “lost” their inhibitions when it came to drink and morals.
And that writing style — those sentences intentionally stripped of adjectives and adverbs, and sometimes of nuance — shocked its readers used to the elaborate structure of Henry James.
Another take-away that Blume never states in her own words but makes pretty clear through the testimony of others is that Hemingway, also irrefutably, was an absolute jerk.
Certainly to the women he claimed to love — his first wife, Hadley, suffered with him in their shoddy Paris apartments and offered nothing but praise and unbridled encouragement as he tried to find his literary footing. All while they lived off her family’s money.
Just as his fame and fortune was about to dock, he traded her in for a more upscale model. One more suited to the role of wife of a lion of American letters.
And to his many mentors and those who opened doors for him in those early days — after he no longer needed them — he was savage and nasty. He mocked Gertrude Stein — who’d even coined the phrase the lost generation with which he became identified — as well as Sherwood Anderson, who had introduced an unknown Hemingway to all the right people in Paris.
He wrote a poem ridiculing Dorothy Parker, then the New Yorker’s literary critic who never wrote anything less than laudatory in reviewing his books.
He even was less than gracious to his drinking buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The already-acclaimed author of “This Side of Paradise” and, soon, “The Great Gatsby,” who had pushed his own big-time New York editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, to take a look at Hemingway’s promising work.
Fitzgerald even urged Hemingway and Perkins to ax the first two chapters from a draft of “The Sun Also Rises.” In a tough-love missive, Fitzgerald argued that the author “provided everything a reader needed to know about (Lady Brett) later in the manuscript,” Blume explains, as well as “ruminations about the post-war English aristocracy.”
Fitzgerald’s advice was “a dignified, noble letter,” Blume says, and Hemingway — realizing his friend grasped Hemingway’s own less-is-more approach as thoroughly as he himself did — immediately slashed those first couple chapters.
Hemingway wrote to Perkins of the decision. And claimed it was, of course, his own idea.
But possibly even worse was how he treated the real people — his friends — on whom he had based the major players in his novel.
He did not warn them he had taken inspiration from their lives, looks and remarks for his fictional characters — much of the novel’s action taken from one raucous trip Hemingway and his entourage took to the running-of-the-bulls fiesta in Pamplona in 1925.
In most cases, it seems he “borrowed” quite a lot. Many were almost instantly recognizable, and quite few never escaped the emotional shadow cast by their fictional counterparts, Blume writes. An epilogue relates what became of the main participants of that fiesta after the publication of “The Sun Also Rises.”
But don’t allow this book’s take on Hemingway the man put you off: If you have not read “The Sun Also Rises,” or you’ve not read it since college, by all means, you must. It’s great stuff.
I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since high school, and now after “Everybody Behaves Badly,” I guess I need to go through it once more.
Nor should you let the novel’s simple sentences mislead you into thinking it isn’t anything other than a breathtakingly deep tale of remorse, unrequited love, betrayal and, yes, adventure. And drinking — lots of drinking.
And as for the author himself being the most flawed character of all? That way, we can assume, sometimes lies genius.
At least, as Jake, the Hemingway stand-in in the novel, says at the story’s end, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”