POST SCRIPTS FROM THE TWO WORLD WARS

 

There are two classic novels in the annals of Fine Literature that allude to the personal, emotional and political angst of an entire generation shortly after the two World Wars. They are Orwell’s “1984” and Hemingway’s  “The Sun Also Rises.” One directs its attention to the literal and figurative scars and trauma of The Great War in the behaviors of the major characters .The other envisions a bombed out world of totalitarian nihilism in the political constructs of a Bureaucratic Socialism during the aftermath of Nazi Germany. Both deal with the tolls taken from the harshness and horror of mechanized warfare on a grand scale. I will reference one here, and the other later in the month.

THE SUN ALSO RISES: Earnest Hemmingway, 1926

Right out of the gate, Hemingway’s first novel, after a life of short story writing, won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is a dramatic study of “The Lost Generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein. The pain that came from an embittered global war left many people with a sense of moral bankruptcy and hopelessness in a world they perceived as having no meaning. It was the time of Sartre and Camus at the height of Existential Nihilism.

The characters are either American or British expatriates living the good life abroad. None of them like staying in the same place for an extended period of time due to an uneasy restlessness and the fact that they devour their stay with heavy drinking and shallow, nonsensical actions (like the running with the bulls at Pamplona). These were the truly ugly, ugly Americans.

The most tragic of the characters are Jake and Brett, who love each other dearly, but can never consummate their love due to a war wound that has left Jake impotent. Her search for love leads her to a bull fighter in Spain, but it, like her other relationships, leaves Brett feeling unfulfilled. Jake understands her plight, but cannot help but feel heartbroken for both of them, when she always returns to be with him. She had been a nurse and lost her husband to the war.

The character Mike had gained his inhuman-like drinking ability from his service in the war. And Cohn, the journalist, is seemingly unaffected by war. The others resent him for not having to deal with his problems by drinking. Yet, he too suffers from pretense, particularly in his love affairs that also go awry, as he makes a fool of himself thinking he has a chance with Brett.

What really strikes me as masterful is Hemingway’s ability to go deep inside each of these characters, no matter how shallow they all seem. They come alive out of his pages in the dearth of the personages they really are from the war wounds received. As robust a man as Hemingway was, I find him experimenting with his own sense of personal wonder as to how he would deal with an affliction, like impotence. In the end, he leave us all with an understanding of their common fate, and hints at it from another title about the Spanish Civil War written much later, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

   The title itself is from Ecclesiastes: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose”. It is a metaphor of the fact that life will prevail no matter what hardships the world offers up. This was the novel that inspired me to become a writer. 

The Resident Scholar - Doug Taylor