BY SARA LEHOULLIER
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I just picked up a new copy of The Sun Also Rises. I lent my last copy—the one I myself “borrowed” from a friend in college—to a boy I liked in the early summer of 2008. He moved away and I never saw him, or the book, again. I still mourn the loss of that particular chewed-up, ratty copy, the one in which I marked my place with a black-and-white picture from a long-ago New Years party; I look so stunningly delighted in the photo, clutching a bottle of cheap champagne, closed-eyes grinning, receiving a New Years smooch on the cheek.
I loved The Sun Also Rises most when I was volunteering for the Peace Corps in Madagascar. For twenty-seven months, I spent my Sundays sprawled on my foam mattress, reading random books gleaned from a pile of crap at the Peace Corps flop-house, discarded romances and science fiction thrillers, a biography of Basquiat, the sexual escapades of Chelsea Lately. Roosters crowed outside and my toilet was a hole in the ground, but in the midst of my weird, protracted acculturation, these books were tiny pieces of the familiar.
Sometimes, in the cool of the evening, I’d shut off the hanging bulb in the middle of the room and tuck myself into the mosquito net to read by candlelight –The Sun Also Rises was the only book I kept on my bedside table, providing a little company for the bug corpses. It was like going home, except home was Paris, or Pamplona, or Bayonne, or Madrid. In the absence of any other entertainment, it was like watching a film in my head; I could see it all, and I could imagine spending time with each and every one of the characters in all the gorgeous scenery, and being very drunk.
I loved The Sun Also Rises for several reasons. First, the story itself is one that I find incredibly heartbreaking and real. Jake, the wounded expatriate, is the voice of the whole thing—he’s the one who gives life to the imagery and descriptions:
The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.
He spins the yarn, he tells the tale—and he does it in a way that made me want to go to Pamplona, to his Pamplona, with him.
Second, I loved the love. I was mostly alone in Madagascar, and I had a lot of free time to think about relationships—past, present, and future. Every couple combination in Sun is a doomed train wreck of absurdity, raw emotion, and booze. In other words, they act like normal, messed-up people. It’s comforting, in a way. The combination I love most is the unfairly unrequited story of Jake and Brett. It’s gut-wrenching and true-to-life the whole way through, especially the ridiculous, circular conversations:
“It’s funny,” I said. “It’s very funny. And it’s a lot of fun, too, to be in love.”
“Do you think so?” her eyes looked flat again.
“I don’t mean fun that way. In a way it’s an enjoyable feeling.”
“No,” she said. “I think it’s hell on earth.”
“It’s good to see each other.”
“No. I don’t think it is.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I have to.”
Finally, most of all, I loved the words. In Madagascar, I went for long stretches without speaking English. I mean real, fluent English, not the “special English” I spoke to my students, which involved saying things like, “Yesterday, I go to the market.” I’d go weeks without making a pun or a joke, using sarcasm, or even constructing compound sentences. Sometimes I’d go days without speaking anything at all to anyone, in any language—and days without laughing. It seemed like I was losing my grasp on my own language, along with my sense of humor.
At those low moments, I’d pick up The Sun Also Rises for a good dose of humor, wordplay, jokes, multisyllabic words, long descriptive phrases, and my native language… everything I missed on a daily basis. Hemingway is really, surprisingly, very funny. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between Bill and Jake—I had the feeling that I’d have a great time with them if they were real-life people.
“Here’s a taxidermist’s,’ Bill said. “Want to buy anything? Nice stuffed dog?”
“Come on,” I said. “You’re pie-eyed.”
“Pretty nice stuffed dogs,” Bill said. “Certainly brighten up your flat.”
“Just one stuffed dog. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em alone. But listen, Jake. Just one stuffed dog.”
“Mean everything in the world to you after you bought it. Simple exchange of values. You give them money. They give you a stuffed dog.”
“We’ll get one on the way back.”
“All right. Have it your own way. Road to hell paved with un-bought stuffed dogs. Not my fault.”
We went on.
I’ve read all of Hemingway’s other books in search of the same balance between humor and melancholy, but I never found one that satisfies me like The Sun Also Rises. It might be just that it gave me a lot of joy during a particularly strange time in my life. Or maybe it’s the best book ever.
So why give this book, a book I love, to some boy I liked for a short time? Perhaps it was a sort of test. I thought then (maybe I still do) that if a person really gets this book in the same way that I do, they just might get me too.