July 2, 2011 will mark 50 years since that day in 1961 when a self-inflicted shotgun blast ended the life of Ernest Hemingway. He died at his ranch outside the small town of Ketchum in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.
Hemingway’s life had finally caught up to the excesses of his lifestyle. His habitual smoking and drinking during an extended fiesta that began shortly after WWI and continued for nearly 30 years had taken its toll on his body. A clinic depression, treated by electroshock therapy, was ruling his mind and he was unable do what he wanted most; he could no longer find the words he needed to finish his literary projects. Perhaps his inability to write was the hardest for him to support.
Themes of drunkenness, brawling, danger, violence, and death appear throughout his short stories and novels, and are present in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first international success, which was written in 1926 while he was living and working in Paris as a press correspondent. The novel tells the story of Jake Barns a Paris correspondent who travels with a group of drunken British and American expatriates to Pamplona, Spain to watch the bull fights and enjoy the weeklong fiesta that marks the feast of San Fermín.
The characters in the novel are based on real people who were with Hemingway in Pamplona in 1925 and who could easily recognize themselves as they were portrayed in the novel. Hemingway himself was the model for Jake Barns. That must have been interesting, I would like to have witnessed the reactions of his friends to the novel since none of the characters are presented in a sympathetic light.
I recently reread The Sun Also Rises. The first part of the novel is set in Paris and focuses on describing the group of expatriates that surround Barns. Their drunken carousing in nightclubs and cafes is elaborated in detail and I eventually got bored with the reading.
However, the tension filled love story between Barns and Lady Brett Ashley, who is a twice-divorced Englishwoman of loose virtue, woke me from my reading stupor. Their relationship is complicated by her promiscuity and because Barns has some unspecified war wound that disables him sexually—apparently he has all the normal desires but cannot actually perform. Hemingway writing makes this love story interesting for the modern reader without being overly explicit, which would have run afoul of the American censors of the 20s.
After this expository introduction the action moves to Spain and, in my opinion, the writing gets much more interesting. The descriptions of a fishing expedition in the Pyrenees Mountains near Pamplona are excellent, but Hemmingway really catches fire when he writes of bull fighting. A scene I particularly liked is when the young bullfighter Pedro Romero demonstrates his skill to Lady Brett:
Pedro Romero had the greatness. He loved bull-fighting, and I think he loved the bulls, and I think he loved Brett. Everything of which he could control the locality he did in front of her all that afternoon. Never once did he look up. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her, too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself. He gained by it all through the afternoon.
Pedro kills three bulls that day as he displays his machismo to Brett and when he is awarded the ear of the last bull as a trophy he gives the bloody artifact to Brett. She didn’t appreciate the gesture, but can’t resist taking Pedro as a lover. They leave Pamplona together in Brett’s rental car to avoid the fiesta crowds and, especially, to avoid other bullfighters. Abandoned by the one he loves, Barns is left feeling frustrated; he can’t live with Brett or without her.
In the third, and final, part of the book Barns prepares to return to Paris; the fiesta is over and now the pieces must be put back together. As he packs to leave the hotel, he receives a telegram from Lady Brett asking to be rescued; she has left the bullfighter and is without cash to pay for her return to Paris.
Barns forgives Brett and life goes on for the expatriates. I enjoyed rereading the book even though the characters are somewhat depressing. The book makes me think of Spain and Hemingway’s deep affection for bullfighting is contagious. It is more than just a bloody sport for him.
Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for the body of his literary work. At that time, he was living in his Cuban home Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) in the village of San Francisco de Paula located in a few miles from the capital city of Havana. Finca Vigia, a Spanish style hacienda, had been his home for nearly 20 years. He declined to attend the Nobel ceremony in person because of his poor health.
In 1959, at the insistence of the US government, Hemingway left Cuba. At that time US-Cuba relations were deteriorating (relations with the Castro government would continue to get worse and finally they would rupture after the ill-conceived and poorly executed “Bay-of-Pigs” invasion of Cuba by the US in 1962). After the Bay-of-Pigs invasion the Cuban government expropriated Finca Vigia, which was then owned by Mary Hemingway.
When the Cuban government nationalized Finca Vigia the deteriorated remains of Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar was also taken. This action was against the wishes of Hemingway’s widow Mary, who wanted the fishing boat sunk in the bay. Today the hacienda is a museum, open to the public and the restored fishing boat sits High-and Dry in the garden.
Today, as US-Cuban relations seem to be improving, travel restrictions are being lifted and Cuba is ready to lead the way in commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death with events in Havana and at the Hemmingway Museum, which the Cuban government recently remodeled.
Reading or rereading on of Hemingway’s now classic novels is, perhaps, as good a way as any to celebrate his life and works.
Day 54: The Sun Also Rises (European title Fiesta), Ernest Hemingway (1929).