Many years ago my wife and I were confined by the police to our hot hotel in Rhodes for an evening, a fate we shared with other tourists as a result of anticipated demonstrations against the appearance of a Turkish ship in the harbour. It was another time of strained relations between Greeks and Turks. Up in our room, I decided it was time I asserted myself as a war correspondent. Out on the balcony with notepad and pen, I could hear the anger and the pounding feet below. I began to scribble – then heard the launching of canisters, smelled the tear gas and nimbly stepped back into our room, all my bravado gone. I picked up the Hemingway I had been reading and poured myself another glass of retsina. He can take you that way.
Now, thirty years later, I have just reread Ernest Hemingway’s first and best novel, The Sun also Rises, written when he and the century were 26 years old. It is a roman à clef, dispensing justice and injustice to members of the Parisian circle surrounding Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. One of the novel’s epigraphs is the now famous remark Gertrude Stein seized upon, ‘You are all a lost generation.’ In fact, ‘wasted’ might be a better adjective to describe a novel in which a bunch of literary drunks gather round a nymphomaniac at Parisian café tables, before taking off for the Spanish bullfights in Pamplona, where each earns his horns. Yet what I loved about the novel – and, with a little more tolerance for human weakness produced by the passing years, still do – is its mixture of post-war pessimism and gaiety, fuelled by constant drinking and banter.
First though, with Hemingway there is always the man to get past in order to see the print up close, a man whose life was made up of large appetites and a shoal of little fictions. Hemingway (1899–1961) came out of a Chicago suburb and, imaginatively, the woods of northern Michigan. After serving as an ambulance driver in the First World Wa
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