am 20. Juli 2000
This book with its austere prose style is good read, and it's clear to me that Hemmingway, then 27 years old, shows tremendous talent. The scenes involving the fishing and the bullfighting are very evocative, and the dialogue interesting. The understatement or non-statement (Hemmingway's iceberg approach to writing) works very well in this, his first book that brought him to national attention. In that regard, the horrors of World War I constitute those parts of the iceberg that lie beneath the water, and influence the emptiness of the social life that is above. The "what might have been" conversation between Jake and Brett (who both love each other, but who both know the hopelessness of that love) at the end of the book is particularly touching.
Notwithstanding the above, none of the characters have much for the reader to be attracted to. A constant never-ending stream of alcohol seems to flow through the book. It's incredible that people can drink as much as the principal characters in the book do. Then there's Brett, the 34 year old woman, who has Jake loving her (and she loves him), is engaged to Mike, has an affair with Robert Cohn (who also loves her), and in the end, seemingly out of the blue, takes off and seduces the 19 year old bullfighter, Pedro Romero. Try to figure that out.
Also, I want to comment on what I consider to be an uncomfortable excess of anti-semitic sentiment in this book. Consider this exchange between Jake and Bill about Brett on p. 230 of the paperback Scribner edition (1954).
--"She hasn't any money with her?" I asked --"I shouldn't think so. She never has any money. She gets five hundred quid a year and pays three hundred and fifty of it in interest to Jews." --"I supppose they get it at the source," said Bill. --"Quite. They're not really Jews. We just call them Jews. They're Scotsmen, I believe."
Of course, the heart of the anti-semitism in this book is the way the characters relate to Robert Cohn. Some of it can be chalked up to jealousy, particularly as Cohn had had an affair with Brett, and Jake, who loves Brett, is sexually crippled because of his war injuries. But almost all of the principal characters, not just Jake, take pleasure in continually deriding Cohn's Jewishness to his face, to each other, or just in their mental, often alcohol-induced lucubrations. The references occur all too often throughout the book, e.g., there's Jake, saying that Cohn had a "hard, Jewish, stubborn streak," p. 10, Bill [on Cohn] at p. 162, "[h]e's got this Jewish superiority so strong that he thinks the only emotion he'll get out of the fight will be being bored" and Mike, "Take that sad Jewish face away, p. 177 . . . etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I realize that times change. I don't believe we should judge books from an earlier generation by today's standards of political correctness. Nonetheless, the characters in this book are often mean-spirited, and excessively anti-semetic without, in my view, an adequately compensating literary justification (which in the context of the holocaust to come a mere decade latter, should give pause). For whatever it's worth, in A Moveable Feast (a description of his life in Paris in the 1920s), the most generous portrait in that book is to the renowned poet (though fascist sympathizer) Ezra Pound.
Perhaps, World War I had gutted the soul, and that explains the Gertrude Stein quote, that Hemmingway uses to preface the book, "You are all a lost generation." But maybe the excuse is too easy.