The “lost generation” was a term coined by Gertrude Stein about the young American and British expatriates in Paris during the 1920s.
Ernest Hemingway was one of the young friends of Ms Stein. In 1925 and 1926, he wrote his defining “lost generation” book, The Sun Also Rises, while he lived in Paris and visited Spain. His memoir of that time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, was written in 1960 and only published after his death. Although I can’t say Ernest Hemingway himself interests me, the look at the hopelessness of life post-World War was very intriguing, and I love the simple, clean writing style Hemingway devised.
A Moveable Feast
In the introduction to A Moveable Feast, his memoir of the years when he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway writes:
If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.
Whether or not the account I read was true, the interaction between young Hemingway and the other artists was fun to read. I also loved reading Hemingway’s thoughts on reading Turgenev, War and Peace, and The Great Gatsby for the first time. Scott Fitzgerald’s strange antics (he could not take alcohol at all without getting very drunk) put a new perspective on The Great Gatsby.
Also, I liked how Hemingway wrote his reflections on his life and the way things ended up; he wrote it in 1960, long after the ends occurred. “Scott did not write anything any more that was good until after he knew that she was insane,” he writes of Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (page 183). She was diagnosed in the 1930s with schizophrenia.
I don’t particularly like reading about people sitting around, getting drunk, gambling on horse races, talking about their sex lives, and having affairs, which is essentially the only “action” in A Moveable Feast. I think, then, a main reason I did enjoy the book was Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris. He made Paris in the 1920s seem like a lost world:
In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept. The windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain. The sun was drying the wet faces of the houses that faced the window. The shops were still shuttered. The goatherd came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. (page 51)
I’ve only been to Paris once, and that was when I was in tourist mode. Yet, Hemingway still seemed to write of things that were familiar to me. I want to go back to Paris!
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled food. (page 69)
Hemingway called the book A Moveable Feast because Paris stayed with him throughout his life, no matter where he went. He said:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
I can see how the people he met influenced his writing, his lifestyle, and his family. Although I haven’t read the books of most of the people he met, the “starving” artists are all united in some ways.
In the end, I may have to revisit A Moveable Feast at some point after I’ve visited Paris again and after I’ve read more of the authors he met: Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, Ernest Walsh, Scott Fitzgerald.
The Sun Also Rises
Remove the true people from A Moveable Feast, remove the descriptions of Paris, and add a few drunk people and a few bull-fights in Spain, and you have The Sun Also Rises. I didn’t like it, but it was still a fascinating novel; I’m glad I (re)read it. (I found it completely unremarkable and recalled nothing after I read it in a college course on the American novel.)
It is a story of recovering from the first war. Although it is called the first novel of the “lost generation,” Hemingway gives Jake Barnes a bit of hope in the end. Maybe he’s saying we’re not all lost after all.
Jake’s friend Bill describes what the “lost generation” means, and essentially all of the American and British expatriates in the novel fit the description.
You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes. (page 120)
Jake’s friend Lady Brett Ashley is the depiction of sexual looseness, and every man she talks with falls in love with her: her beauty, her self-confidence, and her British title (she is in the process of getting a divorce from her abusive husband). She is the definitive 1920s “flapper,” with her bobbed hair and regular love affairs; Wikipedia claims that upon publication of The Sun Also Rises, women across America idolized her and rushed to bob their hair too. Her fiancé is Mike Campbell, a man who is drunk for essentially the entire book: he is also a very nasty drunk and deeply in debt in every country in Western Europe. These two seem to be the typical expatriates, living a lose life in Paris.
On the other hand, the narrator, Jake Barnes is a bit more complicated. He has received a war wound; although it never is explained, it seems obvious that he has been castrated or otherwise left impotent. Since most of the lifestyle of the lost generation revolves around sexuality, for the majority of the novel, Jake seems to feel he’s missing something. The war has literally left him “lost” in a morally free society.
What I liked about the novel was the complexity of Jake Barnes. I disliked him – as I disliked everyone, including Brett, who was a “strong woman.” Yet, Jake was trying to find meaning in the midst of the “fiesta.” In the end, I thought he was the most likeable person around, for he was trying to love dispite his accident, and he did seriously love Brett. As a result, he was the most sincere. He had to find satisfaction and friendship beyond sex and beyond alcohol. (He was quite happy while fishing because he was sober that entire week!). I think Hemingway gives us a whiff of hope in the end. Brett and Jake, even without sex, can still find happiness, even if briefly.
The original title of the novel was “Fiesta” and that was how it was first published in England. I don’t like or fully understand the American title. “Fiesta” seems to better match the setting and characters, since the majority of the novel the main characters are inebriated due to the week of bull-fight “fiestas.” Wikipedia suggests that the title was changed at Hemingway’s suggestion, and it is from Ecclesiastes 1:5:
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
It is a more symbolic title. It suggests that life goes on. Despite the pain everyone suffered in the war, everyday life began again, and they must find some way to cope with it. For the castrated Jake Barnes, the sun will keep rising and setting, even without sex. He will find his place in this new world.
In some ways, both of these Hemingway works have gotten me excited to read more 1920s novels and modernist works in general. There is something clear and simple about the style. I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises, but it certainly was memorable. I’m glad I read it before I dive in to other 1920s works (including a lot of Fitzgerald, I believe).