“Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”
Last year for Bookstravaganza I read A Farewell to Arms, my first Hemmingway novel. I don’t want to brag, but I read it while I was in Italy, and finished it in Paris. Reading The Sun Also Rises while pretending to be in Spain wasn’t the same. I wanted to feel the heat from the Spanish sun on my face, wanted to hear the crowd screaming in horrified delight at the bull-fighting, the tension of old friends besotted with the same woman through the smell of cigarettes. And while I want to immerse myself in this world, there is still an uneasiness to it, a feeling I must have overlooked with Hemmingway before.
The story starts in Paris and follows the narrator Jake, an American expatriate, to Spain as he accompanies his twisted band of friends and the lovely divorcée Lady Brett Ashley for an apparently much deserved vacation, as they fish and watch the bull-fighting and bull-running in Pamplona. All the men seem to be in love with Brett Ashley, and quickly the story escalates with tension between all the characters, particularly Jake’s friend Cohn, whose obsession with Brett, goes to mortifying lengths. As Brett falls in love with an bull-fighting prodigy, the men in her life respond with equal violent passion as the gored bulls they watch coming to unjust and destructive ends.
As a woman I am beginning to feel more strongly against Hemmingway’s ideals of masculinity, no longer overlooking it just as an admiring writer. The works of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald continue to be ever popular, while I believe the misogynism of their time is rarely confronted, and rather instead, inspired to. Hemmingway, much like Byron of an earlier age, is the typical “man’s man,” the macho writer who can whine about being “friend-zoned” without getting eye-rolling responses. Similarly Fitzgerald’s celebrated Gatsby, as a poor and helpless victim of the selfish Daisy Buchanan, is terribly problematic; together Daisy and Brett represent “the new woman,” an emerging age of self-possessed female sexuality both Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were anxious might destroy the masculine power of the Jakes and Jays, the men who apparently truly know how to love. Brett’s using of Jake constantly is not moral by any means, and I do feel sorry for the men in this novel. In a way its easy to see it as charming, to laud Hemmingway’s efforts to restore male sensitivity as a masculine attribute, but at the same time the male desire for control over her, the same desire which brings Jake back to Brett time and time again, is truly also terrible, stemming not from a place of love, but as a way to restore traditional gender power.
Although I truly like Hemmingway’s prose and I love the scenes he paints and the places he transports me to, I feel we also need to distance ourselves from his perspective. The desire to become immersed in a world without understanding how it works is a luxury we can no longer afford in this age. Nostalgia is in many ways a dangerous feeling for the reader. Each time I find myself lingering there, it gets harder to pull myself back. In the text Hemmingway knowingly admits that this is the “lost generation” — a generation of wandering, directionless alcoholics and romantics yearning for change, but unwilling to actually make it. It makes me wonder why now they insist on calling it “the greatest generation.” Nevertheless, I find myself knowing that I don’t want to find myself there among them anymore. I’ll take a snow-covered Edmonton in 2013 any day.
Books Read: 10