“Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises’ ” by Lesley M.M. Blume (2016) is a fascinating nonfiction look at an ambitious young writer determined to make a name for himself in 1920s Paris. “Sun” was Hemingway’s break-out book, his first novel, and the work that everyone had been waiting for.
Blume’s research takes you through the whole ordeal that was Hemingway’s life as he plotted and planned for fame. He also wrote like the devil once he seized upon his story, which was a fictional take on a real trip that he took to Spain with his friends.
It turns out that all the characters in “Sun” were based on real people that Hemingway and his set ran with in Paris. When “Sun” was published there was a huge outcry suggesting that Hem had written a piece of journalism, not fiction. That squabble has been overlooked in the years since the book’s publication -- the author is dead as are most of the characters he wrote about.
Still, does it matter? I don’t think too many readers today really care that Hemingway himself was thinly disguised Jake Barnes, that Lady Brett Ashley was based on a Hemingway friend, Lady Duff Twysden, that the erstwhile boxer Robert Cohn was based on another friend, Harold Loeb, and on and on. Heming way and his group of friends did go to Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls and the whole drunken festival really did take place much as it was related in “Sun.”
The hero of the novel is not Jake Barnes as one might expect but an exceptionally brave and graceful bullfighter, Pedro Romero, still a teen-ager when he takes on bulls at the festival. He is as beautiful a young man as Barnes can remember seeing. Inevitably, Lady Brett Ashley is consumed with Romero and they have an affair. Her former lover, Robert Cohn, who has come to Pamplona not because he was invited but because he cannot stay away from her, is overwhelmed with bitter jealousy and beats Romero mercilessly.
The next day, a hurting, much depleted Romero – his face bloodied and bruised -- enters the ring and fights as beautifully as ever. Romero is “steeped in inner nobility and traditional ethics” (aside from having an affair with an older foreign woman, perhaps). The bull is killed, and the prize ear is presented to Lady Brett (who later tosses it into her bedside table drawer and leaves it when she checks out).
As I read “Everybody Behaves Badly” in the evenings, I listened to “The Sun Also Rises” on tape in the afternoons. It was performed by actor William Hurt. Hurt did a great job reading Hemingway’s clipped prose and his French pronunciation of places in Paris was fine. But when it came to recreating Lady Brett’s English accent, or Mike Campbell’s Scottish accent, or any of the Spanish accents, or an Eastern European accent – OMG – the result was laughable and seriously got in the way of listening to the book. My advice: Don’t torture yourself.
Blume’s epilogue describes what happened in the years after “Sun” to the eight ensemble characters including Pedro Romero who was modeled after the real-life matador Cayetano Ordonez. Blume describes how in 1955 a young American student named Sam Adams was studying in Madrid. The owner of the pension asked Adams if he would mind sharing his room with an older Spanish man who was down on his luck. Eventually, Adams realized that the “repellent old drunk” in the second bed was the hero of Hemingway’s novel. He took note and after their three weeks together Adams published an article for “Sports Illustrated.”
The matador now was a balding, pock-marked disaster with purple lines spattering his nose, a swollen mouth and yellow teeth. He drank heavily, woke up his roommate with nightly bouts of vomiting, and admitted that he was paid to stay away from his family. But he recalled his role in “Sun” as a great honor. And it surely was.
“Sun” was “modern literature fully arrived for a grand public,” according to Loren Stein, editor of The Paris Review. “I’m not sure that there was ever another moment when one novelist was so obviously the leader of a whole generation. You read one sentence and it doesn’t sound like anything that came before.”
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at email@example.com
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