Briefly Noted: Hemingway & Greene

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Scribner, 2003 (/1926). 251 pages.

I have a thing for long sentences (e.g.). That’s one reason I love authors like Dickens who without hesitation throw around sentences like, “As to Merrylegs, that respectable ancestor of the highly trained animal who went aboard the ark might have been accidentally shut out of it for any sign of a dog that was manifest to eye or ear in the Pegasus’s Arms.” I knew, before picking up The Sun Also Rises of Hemingway’s tendency to write concisely. But for the first time I actually paid attention. (I read, I suppose, as a writer.) His prose flows beautifully, rhythmically, suffering nothing from short, simple clauses. (Opposed to a rough staccato. Think of Major Brown from Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades: “Not at all. Friends Remain. Assistance possibly.”) And best of all, close to the end, Hemingway arrests his reader with a wonderful, long sentence, and tells a story in itself. Of a bull he writes,

His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood by her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.

(The sentence is in white for those who don’t want to ruin anything of the story for themselves. You can read it by highlighting it.) In a sea of short sentences appears an island of lush prose.

Aside from the craft, The Sun Also Rises is of course excellent. I’m unconsciously drawn to melancholy fiction, and this proved right up my alley. Jake Barnes’ hapless meandering between France and Spain with his compatriots, fellow expatriates, fishing and napping and drinking and dancing, is gripping even in its relative needlessness. There exists not the same drama as, say, a band of republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War fighting for existence as much as the cause. It is a well-told story of the piercing drama of everyday life.

The Sun Also Rises reminded me very much, in its tone, of Graham Greene, and as soon as I had finished I returned to the library to pick up one of that author’s books. I ended up with:

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Penguin Classics, 2009 (/1938). 288 pages.

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” So begins a tale of intermittent violence in all its petty senselessness and terrible consequence. I keep returning to Greene for his exceptional craft and unflinching fixation on the messiness, the agony of Grace. Before the Resurrection must come the Passion and the Cross. Greene lacks the elegance of Waugh in stories of sin and its consequences, of redemption and man’s struggle to embrace it. I sometimes find myself wishing I was reading Waugh rather than Greene, and certainly I’ve never responded to Waugh as I did Greene after Brighton Rock:

But Greene writes different stories, crushingly important and painful stories, stories that ought to be read and will be read by myself.

Brighton Rock‘s main character, Pinkie, stumbles about a small resort town trying to make it as a gangster. He does his best to play the part, through violence, seduction, intimidation, murder. He is calculating and cruel, and embraces evil and, he thoroughly believes as a Catholic, his own damnation. But his careful cruelty belies frailty, and as the ripples of his sins widen he cannot keep his head above the water.


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