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All the World's a Page

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The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens
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Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath
Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats, Macha Louis Rosenthal
On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague
Igor Lukes
The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway I always feel a little guilty for not loving Ernest Hemingway more; a friend of mine is a Hemingway scholar, and she lives by him. But frankly I find his life more interesting than the admittedly small portion I've read of his fiction. I don't know, maybe I lack the masculinity, alcoholism, and rugged outdoorsmanship to really appreciate him. I did enjoy "Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Hills Like White Elephants" though, so I recently bought his collected short stories, and maybe that will result in a change of heart. But anyway, aside from a high school glossing over The Old Man and the Sea, this is the first of his novels I have read in my post-collegiate literature binge, and while I see it's charms, I did not love it.

It's funny that despite being a "American" novel, The Sun Also Rises, like most of Hemingway's other novels doesn't take place in America. James's The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady are similarly greatly "American" and take place primarily or exclusively abroad. It strikes me that maybe our World has become a more boring place - the "American abroad" is no longer a romantic ideal, least of all a Jamesian tale of American innocence amid European liberalism. Having gone abroad to Europe this past April and May, I was of course taken away by the beauty of Paris, of Spain and Portugal, but it is still inescapably modern, undeniably different from the romantic literature-steeped visions of the European Paradise. The Europe of today, for Americans, is much more like that described by Hemingway: quaint yet exuberant, liberal yet conventional, free yet restrained, accepting yet exclusive: a land of contradictions.

So the sun also rises, the sun goes down, one generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever! The wind goes south and turns north, etc. etc. The point of the novel, of its title, of its epitaph is that times change, irrevocably, for ever; and the novel shows us what changes have taken place. The group of expats represent that change, taking poor conventional Europe by storm: carousing, arousing, rousing the poor Europeans from their yester-year complaisance. And simultaneously, returning to a time long past, a oneness with nature that seems completely incompatible with the world in Paris, with the world in New York, even in the book's context of 90 bygone years.

I read this novel nearly a year ago, and what stays with me still, profoundly is the centrality of sex and gender of the text. Though there are a number of characters, my memory does not care about many of them, and in this review I will ignore them: Robert Cohn, Bill Gorton, Mike Campbell, Romero, Montoya, Count Mippipopolou, etc. What stays with me still are the characters of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, the rest are just minor-celestial bodies which circle about and orbit the two prime forces of Jake and Brett. Jake is a war veteran, left impotent by his war wounds; Lady Brett is a twice-divorced, sexually-liberated (PC for "promiscuous") woman who sleeps with the majority of men in this novel. Two characters which seem impossibly different but who are connected by some force that is like asexual affinity, something transcendent of sexual desire, but also of common friendship.

Lady Brett is a symbol for the sexual freedom of the 1920s, of the gaiety and partying a la The Great Gatsby in America (which affected Hemingway very much). She is fiercely independent, refusing to settle down with any one man (despite her somewhat misogynistic portrayal as being lost/aimless/emotionally impotent, her rapid picking-up and putting-down of lovers reminded me a bit of Hemingways own tumultuous love life). But her independence doesn't make her happy. She doesn't feel happy with any of the men that she is with, but she can't quite bear to be alone either. I suspected that, while I was reading, sex had deadened her capacity for love. In my own life, I feel that sex with those you don't love (even if you love them for just an instant, really feel love for them even if it's fleeting), it deadens your heart just a little. Sex is supposed to be a rising bliss from a foundation of love, and forgone of the foundation it falls flat, it can't satisfy beyond the fleeting moment. I am reminded as I write of the explanation of casual sex, offered by Jacques in Giovanni's Room by Baldwin: "Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It's like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light." Brett feels empty because she can only touch the men that she is with, she forgoes contact for that shrunken sensation of touch. Ironically, the only man with whom she seems capable of bearing contact is Jake - a man who is incapable of offering her the ecstasy of touch. She seems to come to this conclusion too late, when in her final line she tells Jake: "we could have had such a damned good time together," only for him to respond "Isn't it pretty to think so?" - a question that while offering up a vision of possibilities for true happiness, at the same time vouchsafes those opportunities to the cemetery of the foregone, the impossible.

Jake's impotence is quite central to the novel, and I think is often seen as the impotence of existence in the changed world following the First World War. I couldn't shake the impression that his impotence was a sort of physical manifestation of latent homosexuality, though of course with Hemingway, nothing so bold is ventured on the surface of the text. At the club, early in the novel, when the group of homosexual men arrive with Brett, he is disgusted, perhaps too disgusted, by her association with them, which signified to me a discomfort rooted in his insecurity about his own sexual desires. In the same breath that he condemns the gay men, he comments on the beauty of Brett, though he never pursues her sexually or even romantically with any vigor. This assertion of her beauty is a smokescreen, a reassurance of his own false appetites. In this way he seemed to me the antithesis of Brett: sexually restrained, repressed, incomplete: both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, the only real female interest he has is in Lady Brett - a woman of both androgynous appearance (very slim "boyish" figure, short bobbed hair) and a dual-sexed name ("Brett Ashley" - Brett being a mostly masculine name (to me anyway), and Ashley a common girls name).

So we are presented with two sexual forces: the man, Jake, with (if not homosexual) emasculated sexuality (physically), and the woman, with an almost masculine sexual appetite and overly-free lifestyle. A book of contradictions, characters conflicted, a World emerging from conflict but still confused and contradicted at every cafe and street corner. Is there really a natural rebirth in Nature, as Hemingway seems to argue, in Jake's fishing trip? It would seem not, to me anyway. One can escape into the woods, can fish for days, can hunt and sleep in the dirt and bathe in the river and live like a loin-cloth clad ancestor, but one must still return to the World. One can't escape the World forever, it is an inevitability. So can we escape our troubles, our insecurities, or impotencies and weaknesses, our lonelinesses? Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?