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“Isn’t It Pretty To Think So?”

That is the famous last line of Ernest Hemingway’s first, and undoubtedly best, novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Lady Brett Ashley says to Jake Barnes, the protagonist, “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes,” I said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I knew that there was a special on PBS about Hemingway, but I thought it was a Ken Burns one; and although I admire Burns for his general decency, I do not really enjoy his documentaries. But I was turning channels a bit after my vaccine shot yesterday, and I saw that this was on; and it was done by Burns and Lynn Novick, but not narrated by him, by Peter Coyote, and it was very good, I think. I only caught the last hour, then I tried to tape the replay, and I somehow set the wrong PBS channel, so I missed that, too, but it is on again next week, and the Parts 2 and 3 will be on tonight and tomorrow.

The famous line culminates the novel, about Barnes, who fought in WWI, and suffered some kind of injury, never specified, which has left him literally impotent, and figuratively, as well. It is perhaps the most famous of the “Lost Generation” novels. It follows Jake and his friends as they travel to various European locales, drinking, having affairs, trying to gain some sustenance from natural beauty, and what Hemingway himself saw as statements of courage and beauty, including fishing, running with the bulls, going to bullfights.

There are moments of beauty and clarity that Jake experiences, but it is a novel of incomplete and ineffectual people. Brett, a titled British woman, was Jake’s nurse, they fell in love, but could not consummate the relationship. So Jake, out of whatever psychological needs the reader might contemplate, goes along and witnesses, not literally, her many affairs with other men. The last line is too perfect to require analysis, but it is obviously spoken with a kind of bitter regret, and a view that imagining a perfect happiness, or even “a damned fine time,” is presumptuous and childish.

I was never a big Hemingway fan, but I loved this book. In the first episode of the documentary, the part I missed, they described the beginning of his writing career, and his short stories, which were largely superb. Then this great first novel. After that, he wrote other well known ones, but I do not think nearly as good as “The Sun Also Rises.” Actually, I only read parts of the other ones, except that I read the entire novella “The Old Man and the Sea.”

I bought a book on tape of one of the others, but stopped after a few chapters, it seemed so similar to the style and descriptions of his first novel Maybe Hemingway repeated himself thematically, or maybe his style, which was remarkable when he first wrote, somewhat became the stuff of parody, with the short, clipped, direct sentences, from which the reader must discern the inner state of the narrator and the other characters.

Hemingway was handsome, athletic, very intelligent. He also had a strange competitive side, which seemed to lead him to try to derogate other writers. Fitzgerald championed him, and wanted to be his friend, but Hemingway berated him for his drinking, and not doing enough writing. He also wrote a novella, “The Torrents of Spring,” which cruelly parodied a work by his early mentor, Sherwood Anderson, the author of the brilliant set of connected short stories, “Winesburg, Ohio.”

In “The Sun Also Rises,” the characters were very much patterned after people Hemingway had gone around with in Europe. Robert Cohn was a Jewish character, taken after his supposed friend Harold Loeb. But Hemingway made Cohn into a rather despicable character who did not follow the “code” that was supposed to be essential to properly get through the essential meaninglessness of existence. Cohn sleeps with Brett, but he is possessive of her, not comme il faut. When Jake essentially sets her up with the young bullfighter Pedro Romero, Cohn is jealous and fights him. Cohn was an Ivy League boxing champion, and keeps knocking him down, but Romero keeps getting up, which Hemingway sees as the true grace under fire, and Cohn as a hopelessly graceless bully. Loeb was apparently very upset at this character, and could not understand why Hemingway would do that. It does diminish the book.

So we will learn more about Hemingway, and the reaction to his later novels, and his various romantic episodes. There is a story I remember from a baseball book, “Bums,” by Peter Golenbock, which is an oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers. A Dodgers player of the late ’30’s and ’40’s, Kirby Higbe, recounted a story where he and Hemingway had met and were friendly. He came over to his house, and Hemingway wanted to box with him, which was something he liked to do. Higbe, taller and athletic, knocked Hemingway down a couple of times. The next morning, Hemingway wanted to fight a duel with Higbe, with pistols. Higbe quickly demurred, and got out of there.

We will hear about the period of “Papa Hemingway,” in Florida and Cuba. I saw a one-man play about that period, quite good, with the actor speaking lines from various pieces that Hemingway had written. It portrayed a man who was having some kind of writer’s block; who called one of his earlier wives for moral support, which she always tried to give via telephone. The actor read a somewhat strange passage he wrote about writing being like boxing; you got into the ring with Tolstoy or some other writer and battled to see if you could stand up to him. And we will of course hear about Hemingway’s suicide in Idaho in 1961, just before he turned 62 years old.

The legend or the mythology of Hemingway has perhaps overshadowed his writing. But he did write at least the one great book, with the unforgettable closing line. Hearing it again, caused me to reflect on its import. Most of us imagine some halcyon time, and spool it out in our minds so that it becomes idyllic. We could have been a contender, or even more. We should have asked out that girl in high school who was both very pretty and nice, and who would stare at us during Government class, and whose best friend told us after she had graduated early, “Susan is going to really miss you.”

We could have been a writer, or a singer, or made our way in the publishing world, going to parties full of erudite people who would debate Shaw and Dostoevsky–and Hemingway. There are lots of things we might have done; and of course we rarely imagine it not going that well; the dreariness of fighting your way down the tenure track; or having critics mock your acting or singing or writing; or even being very successful, and then somehow losing the ability to get your ideas down on paper.

There is a song I like from a late ’70’s Los Angeles group called The Last. It is “Every Summer Day.” It hearkens back to “Southern California, 1963.” The words are, “Baby, do you want to take a ride with me/Down to the sand and the waves and the surf and the sea/The sun is out, the waves are breaking big/Baby, baby, say you’ll take a ride with me/And we’ll run/Under the summer sun/Ride the Summer waves/Every summer day.”

And then later in the song, “‘Now I’m right here where I want to be/You know this kind of life is looking good to me/Don’t want to grow up, I never want to leave/Growing old is only gonna bring me misery/Let me stay/Right here with all my friends/The world is ours today/ I hope it never ends.” Then, “I’m gonna keep on following that sun/And I’m never going to stop having fun/And nothing’s ever gonna change my world/And I’m never gonna lose that girl/Oh, Baby do you want to take a ride with me….”

It’s a catchy surf-pop song, which carries with it that unforgettable poignancy. I never surfed; and I do not pine for my high school days. But I do have empathy and understanding for the theme of, “We could have had a damned fine time,” doing or being this or that. But as one of the literary critics quoted on the documentary said, that is the nature of life. You can’t do everything, every choice you make precludes another one. Hemingway was actually involved with two women at the same time, married to one, and almost as if married to the other. But of course that could not continue. Hemingway dramatically referred to it as almost like death. Even so, there is a part of human nature which is drawn to the possibilities of what for one reason or another, could not be.

I wonder what the world would be like had Hillary gotten the nomination in 2008 when she got the most votes and even won almost all of the primaries. Or even if she had won in 2016 as she would have, if not for things we well know about. Would the world have been perfect now? Of course not, but better. How much better, we can only imagine.

One Response

  1. The two songs that came to my mind, as I read your excellent essay, were “Did You Ever Have to Make Up your Mind” and “The Tavern.” Mr. Hemmingway should have made up his mind a bit sooner than he did.

    The thing I liked about Mr. Hemmingway is that he loved cats. The descendants of his six-toed cat still live in Key West.

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