Reading Hemingway using five magic keys

Hearing a voice from the Jazz Age for the first time by reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

For me, the world of classic literature is like an old locked cupboard in the attic, I’m keen to break it open to see what’s inside. I’ve heard there’s some wonderful experiences waiting for me if I could just find the key. Recently I did just that, I found a key, well five actually and accessed a classic written by Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. I heard a voice from the The Jazz Age for the first time.

Why did I need a key, why not just open the book and read it? Oh, if only reading “old” books were that simple. You see, I have a classics-block. Many of you who follow my blog will know it’s an ongoing problem for me. My attitude towards works stamped with “classic” blocks me from accessing the words between the covers.  I try and I try to break through the block but eventually, after only a couple of chapters, I close the book, often as a result of boredom, confusion and a self-effacing attitude toward new voices, dense narration and a personal need for a plot driven story.

Densely written books often have many characters, too many to keep track of, some with unpronounceable names, strange locations, mind shifts, intricate descriptions and some don’t have a plot. Books without a plot confuse me, I need to know where the story will lead. Every book I choose to read, presents a question: Why would I, should I, do I, care to know what the book will give me?

Before we go any further I should clearly define my personal view of what a classic work of literature is.  Here, in this blog, when I coin the term “classic” I’m referring to any written work published before 1960, available in English and written by an author whose work is considered, by prolific readers, still worth reading.

I’ve heard that the authors of classic literature write at a deep level, a level that can change the way the reader thinks about things. It’s intriguing, the idea of changing the way one thinks about things, possibly approaching things in a lateral and, hope upon hope, a wiser way.

Prolific readers know, one book can lead to another and to another and then to another, and so on to infinity. This progression was my key to gaining access to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  However, it was not a book that started me off on my journey, it was a set of blog posts about books. The bloggers were participating in a challenge of reading and reviewing literature from “The Jazz Age”.  Their blogs were the first and primary key to the Jazz Age world of Ernest Hemingway in 1920s France.  I found five magic keys:

  • Key 1) Reading the Book Blogs related to The Jazz Age Reading Challenge 2014
  • Key 2) Reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  • Key 3) Reading A Moveable Feast – Sketches of the Author’s Life in Paris in the Twenties by Ernest Hemingway published posthumously in 1964
  • Key 4) Softening my attitude to Ernest Hemingway’s public persona
  • Key 5) Gaining confidence

The Jazz Age Reading Challenge was hosted by one of my favourite book bloggers, Leah Mosher of “Books Speak Volumes” ((Note: Leah Mosher’s Blog “Books Speak Volumes” has unfortnately disappeared from the internet when we went looking for it in 2020.)).  Leah invited participants to read books related to the Jazz Age during the month of January 2014. Participants in the challenge were encouraged to read at least one book set in or about the Jazz Age or its characters and write about it!

I chose Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, I read it and enjoyed it and it led me to another book, The Moveable Feast.

At this point I could not say I was reading-Hemingway because The Moveable Feast was a series of sketches of  Hemingway’s life in Paris written over the years by Ernest Hemingway and published posthumously in 1964. I don’t consider this book fits into the definition of a “classic” as defined in this blog.  It certainly was a stepping stone for me. It gave me another access key.

Reading The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast made me a bit better informed about Hemingway than I was before reading the books;  the books broke down a block I had about the man. Previously I had an image in my mind of Hemingway the misogynist-alpha-white-male and I envisaged his writing about fishing, drinking, brawling and bull fights to be of no interest to me. However, after reading The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast my attitude toward Hemingway and his work changed, just a little, because I was impressed by his dedication to his writing. I became curious about the stories the man wrote. My reading muscle had strengthened, I felt enthusiastic, I felt keen, I was ready for the big one, the real book, his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. (Drum roll required here!)

I broke into that dusty, imaginary, cupboard in the attic, with my bunch of keys, and found my way to where Hemingway’s book waited for me. What surprised me was the book could fit nicely into the Travel Adventure genre and sit comfortably next to the excellent work of Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, except Hemingway’s book is fiction, even though the characters are based on real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events, the story is embellished and fictionalised.

It was good to read Hemingway at last and the book was very readable. I can’t say I loved it but I certainly enjoyed it on several levels. I’m sure I’ll read another of his books sometime down the track..

A little about the book

The Sun Also Rises is a novel by American Ernest Hemingway that portrays American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. An early and enduring modernist novel, it received mixed reviews upon publication. However, Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes that it is now recognised as Hemingway’s greatest work, and some call it his most important novel. The basis for the novel was Hemingway’s trip to Spain in 1925. The setting was unique and memorable, depicting sordid café life in Paris and the excitement of the Pamplona festival, with a middle section devoted to descriptions of a fishing trip in the Pyrenees.

The novel is considered a “roman à clef”, meaning the characters are based on real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Hemingway presents his notion that the “Lost Generation”, considered by some to have been decadent, dissolute, and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was in fact resilient and strong. Hemingway investigates the themes of love and death, the revivifying power of nature, and the concept of masculinity.

A little about the author

Ernest Hemingway, died 1961, was an American journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and sportsman. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th century fiction, while his adventurous lifestyle and his public image brought him admiration from later generations. Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He published seven novels, six short-story collections, and two nonfiction works. Three of his novels, four short-story collections, and three nonfiction works were published posthumously. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature.

Genre – Fiction

Action, Adventure, Classic,

Backdrop

Spain

First Published

1926

Other books by the author and about the author
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Buy the book from Amazon.com.au
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Buy the book from Amazon.com.au
  • The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain. Buy the book from Amazon.com.au