Hemingway: an American in Paris (and Spain)

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If, due to current circumstances, you should find yourself without something to occupy you, I would like to suggest reading one of Ernest Hemingway’s works in celebration of what would have been his 121st birthday on the 21st of July. Hemingway, one of the most important American authors of the 20th century, is famous for many things, including winning a Nobel Prize of Literature following the publication of The Old Man and the Sea; but it is his characteristically flat and simple style of writing that distinguishes him and makes for a unique reading. At times, his descriptions are so reduced that they sound like stage directions for a play. The emotionlessness of his words seems to suggest that, ultimately, everything his characters do or live through is but of fleeting importance.

Nevertheless, the reader can frequently detect parallels with the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hemingway’s oeuvre. This comes as no surprise, given that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were part of the same expatriate literary circles in Paris and became close friends. They both belonged to the so-called Lost Generation, the generation of Americans whose youth was caught between the horrors of the First World War and the bleak prospects of the economic crisis of 1929, finding only brief solace in the excess of the Golden Twenties. Their lack of belief in the future and in the very concept of humanity – many of them had participated in the War and had witnessed its inhumane destructiveness – was often mirrored in their creative work, as can be observed in Hemingway’s Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), for instance. 

[Hemingway’s] lack of belief in the future and in the very concept in humanity…was often mirrored in [his] creative work.

When I read Fiesta, the first time I read Hemingway, the aimlessness of its protagonists strangely fascinated me from the very beginning. The text starts off by following the narrator Jake as he idly drifts around the expat social sphere of 1920s Paris, helplessly in love with the English aristocratic girl Brett, spending his days and nights at random parties, drinking and dancing and, frankly, not doing much else. Drinking is perhaps even his main occupation, as a considerable quantity of alcohol gets consumed over the course of the narrative – so much in fact, that the protagonists are rarely described without a glass of whiskey, Pernod, wine, beer or champagne in their reach. Brett even collapses at one point on a train from too much alcohol, yet continues her consumption in perfect naivety soon after. It is left to the reader to wonder whether this is the Lost Generation’s subconscious way of dealing with their collective trauma, or whether they drink simply because they can afford it and have nothing else to care about. 

At some point, Jake and Brett make the decision of leaving Paris for Spain. Together with friends – most of whom are also very much interested in the beautiful Brett –, they go to Pamplona, a charming town in the north of the country, sitting directly behind the tree-covered Navarrese mountains. They arrive in Pamplona for the Fiesta de San Fermín, an annual religious festival, which is famous for the bullfights – the corridas – that take place over the course of several days. Hemingway himself was a true aficionado of Spanish bullfighting, and his description of the corrida is yet another element drawn from his personal experience. 

[Fiesta] is a story of the could-haves and what-ifs of happiness.

While the group enjoy themselves during the corrida, the tension between them rises as Robert and Mike, two of Jake’s friends, try incessantly to get Brett’s attention; Jake, who is still in love with her, mostly remains as observer of the escalating situation, which ends with Robert leaving after Brett has begun an affair with a young Spanish torero instead, with whom she goes off to Madrid. Of course, the affair does not last long, and Jake finds himself hurrying to the Spanish capital to meet her. When they finally sit together in a taxi, Brett says with some regret: ‘Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned time together.’ It is this sentence that ultimately summarizes the text, for it is a story of the could-haves and what-ifs of happiness. Although it has been almost 100 years since Fiesta was published, Hemingway’s work resonates strongly with readers all over the world. What better way to remember him after his birthday than to see if they resonate with you?

Image: Ajda ATZ via Unsplash

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