THE SUN ALSO RISES was Hemingway's breakthrough novel. And what a breakthough it was. Before it, he'd had modest success with his short stories (a literary form of which he was a master, to be sure), but it was this novel that made his reputation stateside (he was an expatriate in Paris, just like the characters in this novel, at the time he wrote and published it).
The book reads like a prolonged short story which is, in fact, its great strength. It is a slice of life, of very particular lives to be sure, painted in that finely crafted impressionist style which Hemingway honed in his days as a literary apprentice in Kansas City, Chicago and on the Left Bank of post World War I Paris.
Briefly, the book details the escapades of a group of expatriates living it up in dissolute pleasure in the wake of the recently finished war in a recovering and still giddy Europe. Giddy, at least, within the crowded milieu in which these people mainly move. It has no plot to speak of, except for the movement of its people in and out of bars, parties and bull fights, and their conversations in cafes and taxis and, on occasion,in rural hunting lodges, most of which embody a tight and elaborate dance of almost ritual posturing. The tale follows them as they move cautiously about one another, and through various parts of Europe from their Parisian base, seeking connection and a tenuous spiritual sustenance which they seem able to find only in in the hurly-burly nightlife world of their own making, a world in which past troubles and insecurities can momentarily be forgotten.
At its heart the novel follows, most of all, the growth of one man, its main character, Jake Barnes, from morose outsider (and irrevocably ruined World War I soldier) in love with the unattainable, as he transforms into a person who sees his world all too clearly and, recognizing this, severs himself at the end from what he most desires. Nothing happens and yet everything does, precisely reflecting the emotional landscape through which the tale progresses.
I will add my voice to that of others regarding the inimitable Hemingway style, a style he fashioned (not entirely in a vacuum, of course) from the world of experimentalist writers and painters in which he immersed himself in his Paris years. At its best, the sort of writing with which Hemingway has crafted this fascinating novel explodes into the reader's consciousness, creating a sense of reality and freshness that previous forms of prose had failed to attain. It's poetry as much as prose for its rhythms and repetitive stresses on simple, basic words which combine, at times, to build an image in the mind, a concrete sense of the real world which puts to shame all the abstractions and florid prose of previous literary works.
But there's no sense trying to recapitulate the story here -- or to describe how it's told. The best thing is for the reader to step into it and experience it for him or herself. It's still fresh and strong today and worth your time.
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