Hemingway has loomed over my reading-the-classics project like a shadowy storm-cloud on the edge of a sunny blue sky. At some point, I knew, I’d have to revisit the author who made my Grade 11 English class such pure agony by writing The Old Man and the Sea. Later, in college, I read another Hemingway novel — I think it may have been For Whom the Bell Tolls . I can’t remember whether I read it for a class or whether I just read it to give Hemingway another chance, but I do recall that it left me deeply unimpressed. I think it was one of those books that I finished and thought, “What the heck just happened here?”
This time, I happened to be watching Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventures, one in Palin’s series of travel shows where he attempts to visit many of the places where Hemingway lived and wrote, and places he wrote about. During the episode about bullfighting I decided I should read The Sun Also Rises, which I mistakenly thought I’d read once before. I hadn’t. This was my first try with it, and while I definitely got more out of it than my earlier readings of other Hemingway novels, I don’t think Hemingway will ever be a favourite of mine.
It’s all about his writing style. I thought the subject matter itself was off-putting — the writer and his characters are so macho, so obsessed with manliness, so obviously sexist and racist in ways that would be impossible to put on paper today. But as I read The Sun Also Rises (which is at least partially autobiographical, it seems), I thought that that whole world of these unhappy rich expats drifting around Europe drinking, having sex and doing nothing useful could actually be quite interesting in the hands of a different author. I thought the main character Jake and the woman he sort-of loves, Brett, were potentially fascinating characters — I wanted to know much more about the motivations of both characters. But of course Hemingway’s not in the business of giving us that kind of insight. I find his writing frustrating because he seems so determined to keep us on the outsides of his characters, to treat them as shining surfaces without penetrating any further. Obviously it works for a lot of readers since his books have become classics, but to me it’s just annoying.