The Sun Also Rises – Ball Games Against A Monastery Wall

The Sun Also Rises is Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, published in 1926, describing the European meanderings of a group of British and American expatriates in the aftermath of World War One. Jake Barnes, an American journalist; Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer; Mike Campbell, a Scottish bankrupt; Bill Gorton, a hard drinking American with no discernible job; and Brett Anderson, a beautiful English socialite, hang around in Paris. Their somewhat pleasant, rather aimless Parisian existence is then interrupted by a visit to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. During the festival, enflamed by a hectic atmosphere of drink, dance, packed crowds, running bulls and bull fights, rivalry among some of the men for the affections of beautiful but flighty Brett, boils over into physical violence.

All of this action, or inaction, whether it’s wandering around Paris cafes, or having fist fights in Pamplona, is described in the same low-key tone by Jake, the American journalist. Jake’s detached point of view is partly a product of war injuries, which have left him unable to have a physical relationship with a woman. His situation seems to lift him out of the usual hurly burly of life – the standard course of courtship, marriage, children and so on. Jake is a disinterested Catholic, but despite his imperfections, his laziness, superficiality and casual episodes of meanness, he reminds me of a monk living in his own kind of monastery. Forced into a vow of celibacy Jake cannot have the relationship that Brett wants with him. Nevertheless, she keeps coming back, mainly because he can just be a good friend. Jake is not particularly wise or virtuous, but he is a steady centre, somewhat set above the bitter competition of normal men.

Churches, cathedrals and monasteries are mentioned frequently in The Sun Also Rises. They are passed during journeys, or become the subject of desultory tourist visits. Bayonne Cathedral is described as “nice and dim”. Roncesvalles Monastery, grudgingly accepted as impressive, is not as interesting as fishing, or a nearby pub. Jake notices village churches with signs asking people not to play ball games up against their walls. These buildings might presume importance for themselves, but there is nothing other-worldly about any of them. Like Jake, they are very much part of everyday life.

Thinking about it, maybe all the main characters, flawed as they are, qualify in their own way as unexpected members of monastic orders. They are separate from society. Nearly all of them are war veterans, even Brett who was a military nurse. The experience of war seems to have left them unable to settle back into ordinary life. Robert Cohn, the Jewish writer, is the only non-veteran, which only serves to separate him off in a different way. Lacking the bond felt by the others, he is singled out with cruel, anti Semitic remarks. The same deceptive monastic separateness also defines secondary characters – the prostitute Georgette who accompanies Jake to a few Paris cafes; Brett’s friend Count Mippipopolous, veteran of seven wars, who sits in the splendid isolation of his war experience and social position; or old bull fighter Belmonte who coming back from retirement, can never live up to the legend of his former career.

The whole book, in its characters, plot and ascetic, spare, yet shaped writing style, is a huge, dim, monastic interior, fashioned out of material, which – remembering those signs about ball games – is equally suitable when building cathedrals or squash courts. It suggests both the hidden depths of everyday experience, without shutting a sense of importance away in an inaccessible place. The Sun Also Rises deserves its classic status

White Teeth by Zadie Smith – A Style Check-Up

White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a generational story centred on the lives of two men, one British, one Bangladeshi. They fought together in World War Two in a Spike Milligan Hitler, My Part In His Downfall kind of way. We then flit about through subsequent decades, exploring their lives, those of their wives and children, and the multi-cultural British society in which they all live.

There is a lot of interesting material on the complexities of identity. For example, a music teacher tries to persuade her school orchestra to play Indian music. When this idea is not greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher asks a Queen fan what he would think if this lack of respect were directed at Queen – ironically not acknowledging the Parsi-Indian background of Freddie Mercury himself. This is a typical observation. It can all get a bit bewildering when genetics come into it – but basically the book celebrates variety and complexity rather than straight lines in life.

The book is interesting in its themes and ideas, but I did find it hard to read. I was not convinced by efforts to reflect a messy social situation in the writing style. Frequently the book would break grammatical “rules” in an attempt to give further perspective on the collision of communal rules and mores described in the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea. Ernest Hemingway does something similar in A Farewell To Arms, when American solider, Frederick Henry, breaks the most serious of regulations in deserting from the army. Henry’s non-literary voice describing his ordeal, serves as a further layer in a classic study of society’s expectations. However, for me, things don’t work quite as well in White Teeth, where the style does not reflect a particular narrator. Instead, White Teeth has a disembodied narrative voice, which periodically pops up and self-consciously bends literary rules, uses brackets in weird ways, or gives us two pages with no full stops. It comes over as a literary exercise, which is not the feeling you get with Hemingway, where the style is part of a character.

So, I found White Teeth interesting for its ideas, less so for its writing style.