Monday, September 16, 2013

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

The Sun Also Rises

What a joy it is to read—again—The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (#45 on the Modern Library’s list).  My edition is the Bantam paperback, 3 ½ by 5 ½ trim and not even 200 pages.  You want to savor it, make it last, but you just can’t help reading it all the way through in a single sitting, oblivious to any other stimuli or responsibilities.

As all literature students and most Americans know for a fact, Hemingway single-handedly changed the way novels henceforth were written and, moreover, established American Culture once and for all.  It’s also been said that compared with his contemporary William Faulkner, whom critics like to pit him against for the title of Greatest American Novelist, Hemingway took few risks with his writing.  It’s been suggested that perhaps Hemingway has only ever told one story—the story of men and women—and that this is somehow suspect.
A Faulkner sentence can contain the entire history of several generations of intriguing people. A Hemingway sentence is like noticing the unconscious gesture of the stranger down the bar, his knob-knuckled fingers rubbed against the back of his neck, say, that makes you want to go to bed with him.
The Sun Also Rises is “the bull-fighting novel.”  In the first paragraph we meet Robert Cohn. In the last sentence of that paragraph, we meet “I.”  In the second paragraph, “I” reverses everything we thought we were supposed to know about this Robert Cohn and it becomes clear that “I” (whose name is eventually revealed as Jake) is the protagonist as well as the narrator of the story. The novel ends with one of the most famous last lines in American literature:  “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” A devastating sentiment when you arrive to it.
In between, we have Paris and Pamplona, we have delicious meals and hard writing work, gossip and conversation. We have Jake and his dissipated friends attempting to ruin the life of a promising young toreador.  Or is it that they just can’t help themselves? Are these people lost, or are they living a life you wish you could live for a little while? Are they troubled, or are they dwelling on their troubles so as to feel more deeply the basic tragedy that is Life? Or are they indeed more troubled than they are willing to let on to each other or even to themselves and that’s why they talk to each other with this glibness and irony and carelessness that you wish you could pull off sometimes, too, without sounding like a jerk or a phony.
They move from café to café, from half-adventure to half-adventure, from almost love affair to almost love affair, through some of the most exciting events a human being can endure, and the writing is so thoroughly lacking in apparent effort that the novel is not so much a reading experience as a pure aesthetic experience.  No one can write like this.  Yet someone has.
Hemingway is probably the most analyzed and critiqued American author ever.  Don’t worry about that, just read the novel.  Again.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.