Reading Hemingway’s Fiesta in 2013: A Realistic Voice

Few people know Hemingway’s love stories, do they? Yet most girls in their twenties are now reading Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, an undoubtedly tedious combination of asininity and sex appeal. They may be easy and to the point, but their charm lays in nothing more than the portrayal of exceptional types of romance. There is no objection to this, but the depiction of love is so painstakingly elaborate that both narratives become too obvious to be enjoyable. Hemingway’s style rejects transparency of this sort, yet he is still able to write aptly about an unusual love between the American journalist Jake and the English Lady Brett that springs to life in Paris of the 1920s. With few words he creates a love story of clarity that surpasses the vulgarity of endless elaboration and only narrowly escapes tragedy.
The beauty in consuming a Hemingway novel is to read what has not been written. When Jake is in bed with a headache and Brett sends their guest away, it requires but two words to imply the state of things. Brett: “‘Sent him for champagne. He loves to go for champagne.’ Then later: ‘Do you feel better, darling? Is the head any better?’” (Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, London: Arrow, 2004, p. 48). Then, later, and a colon; this suffices to evoke a break in the sequence, filled with undefined amounts of time and endless possibilities. The word sex, or even an explicit description, is not necessary to figure what happened in Jake’s apartment, and the assumption is much more satisfying than certainty.
The sparsity of explanations is typical for the writing of the Lost Generation, which was not concerned with causality but with capturing their perceived existence in a strange post WW I world. Thematically, so Charles Russel, Hemingway’s “modernist novels present characters who constantly confront a disruptive and perhaps meaningless environment” (Christopher Butler, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: UP, 2010). To further elucidate every incident would be to nullify the authentic cluelessness of the experience. There is no transparency in the narrative comparable to current pop lit because the life on which the stories were based never seemed entirely explicable to the people who lived it. “There were always strange and comic things that happened in the worst time…” (A Movable Feast: The Restored Edition, New York: Scribner, 2009, p. 57), Hemingway wrote about his mid-twenties in Europe.

This is not to say that certain truths are not apparent in the novel. It is perfectly clear that the protagonist loves Brett who, notwithstanding her engagement to Michael and declarations of true love for Jake, is unable to be in a monogamous, conventional relationship. It does not, of course, seem logical. But Hemingway at no point attempts an explanation; never does he rationalise any of his characters’ actions, they just stand as what they are. “It’s the way I’m made” (49), as Brett declares. Nonetheless, Jake does not remain impartial to her inconsistency of character and his own forlorn hopes: “To hell with women, anyway. To hell with you, Brett Ashley. Woman made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.” (p. 128-9)

Notwithstanding the bitter tone of this brief soliloquy, Jake never questions Brett’s refusal to be with him, nor does he consider removing, or at least determining, the obstacle. He must live with her decision. This is not the design of a passive coward as the main character, but to my mind perhaps the most elegant and true way of writing about human relationships. Chekhov said one should never confuse two things in a novel: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. “It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In Anna Karenin und Eugene Onegin not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems in them are stated correctly.” (Derrick Leon, Tolstoy: His Life and Work, London: Routledge, 1944, p. 180)

The problem in Fiesta is clearly deployed, the distress about the situation obvious; yet neither Jake as the narrator or Brett as his counterplayer are seeking to unravel it by either getting together or by producing a logical explanation for the impossibility of their union. Their misfortune is so unmotivated by the narrative that Jake closely resembles a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense: he is a “man eminently good and just, whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty” (Poetics, XIII). But unlike the audience of Oedipus, the reader of Fiesta never learns of the error and we are left with nothing but a failed romance.

Why is this nevertheless satisfying? Because: such is life. I don’t think we ever know half the mistakes we have made along our way, or that we are able to pinpoint the reasons why our relationships haven’t worked out. Hemingway is honest by never resolving this tension, for most of us, in 2013 as in 1926, can’t either. Unlike with Anna Karenina or Oedipus, there is no death or exile – life simply goes on. It’s not quite a tragedy, and we are not quite cathartic with pity. But we can see a resemblance to our own, often clueless lives, and be satisfied that someone else somewhere is just as clueless.

Photograph by Marco Raaphorst, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Agatha Frischmuth

Agatha Frischmuth is Chief Editor of The Re|view.

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