Returning the Favour

Despite the fact that I am a voracious reader, I have some huge gaps in my reading history of writers that I have never gotten around to exploring. I’m sure every reader has these – it’s almost inevitable considering the endless number of books out there. I’m ashamed to say I have some classic authors missing from my stable, including Dickens, Trollope and Tolstoy. It’s pointless to feel bad about it as no-one can read everything, but I always feel satisfaction when I cross another legendary name from my to-read list.

With this in mind I was happy with this month’s book club choices. Ernest Hemingway has been on my radar for a long time. His writing style is one I have been recommended many times, and the brevity and clarity of his language has gone down in history. So to finally read his first novel The Sun Also Rises was a great joy and has made me eager to search out the rest of his oeuvre.

The economical and understated nature of Hemingway’s prose is his greatest strength and is impossible to ignore. The sentence structure is staccato, with almost no use of punctuation – commas, parantheses, semi-colons, and so on. This gives the prose an amazing punch. This style means that the language used must be clear and concise, with each adjective used with extreme precision. It’s a very fine line to risk, but Hemingway sails through with aplomb. It really is an extraordinary quality that defines his work.

This style partly comes from Hemingway’s background as a journalist, where he had to focus on events with little room for context or interpretation. He developed what became known as the ‘Iceberg theory‘, which basically means to only show what is on the surface of a characters mind, rather than explicitly describing underlying thoughts. The facts remain above the surface, and the themes and symbolism are hidden beneath.

These ideas are pivotal to The Sun Also Rises. The main character Jake Barnes was wounded in the First World War and became impotent; the object of his love is Brett Ashley, divorcee who worked as a nurse in the war and is suffering from a form of post traumatic stress. These facts are never openly told, they are only suggested through the characters words and actions. All the characters are greatly affected by war, and drink heavily and behave badly throughout. I would consider them not quite lost but scarred by their experiences, and desperate to cling to anything that will alleviate the memory, if only for a while.Brett is an extraordinary character – promiscuous and using sex for personal gain, with the one man she truly loves unable to give her sex. Their relationship is tempestuous, incendiary for the time, and completely enthralling.

The scenes of bullfighting are very memorable, reflecting one of Hemingway’s lifelong obsessions. Its the centrepiece of the novel and the characters react in different ways, Brett falling in love with the matador Romero, the only heroic character of the novel. Hemingway found bullfighting an idealised pursuit, with a purity and authenticity so lacking in the world that he found himself in. Obviously the violence of the sport is not for everyone but his admiration for it shines through.

There is so much going on in this book that I could go on for longer. Suffice to say it is a novel that rewards multiple readings and should be considered a masterpiece of 20th century literature.

Not an easy act to follow, then. Our second choice, written over 150 years earlier, was Voltaire’s influential satire Candide. I always have a fascination with reading novels from before the 19th century, partly because I have read so few and also because of their age. Australia wasn’t even discovered when this book was written.

Voltaire was most famous for his philosophy and this satire could be seen as a rejection of optimistic thought that prevailed at the time. Candide’s mentor Pangloss is a firm believer that ‘all is for the best’ and tries to justify the various evil encounters they come across. Over the course of this fantastical and sarcastic plot, with many deaths and hardships, Candide comes to the conclusion that this belief is nonsense. There are many horrible deaths described in such painstaking detail that it comes across as ludicrous, which I’m sure was Voltaire’s aim. The writing is playful, but do not mistake that for criticism. The novel must have been seen as explosive at the time, as it criticises virtually all the European civilisations and religions. This derision resulted in severe denunciation from many quarters and it was banned pretty quickly. Such is the power of this interesting book.

On a personal level, this book club was great for me as my sister joined us, returning the favour after I attended a session of her club in Germany at the beginning of the year. The knowledge that a love of books can transcend geographical and cultural boundaries has always been part of my love of literature and it was good to see it reinforced.