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In a course I took on the American literature of the 1920s, the professor began his discussion of "The Sun also Rises" by calling our attention to a minor, sidebar scene: Jake and Georgette promenade in in Paris in the early evening past the window of the Herald Tribune offices. Jake explains to Georgette that the clocks displayed in the window show the hour in each of the four time zones across America. Georgette, who is a prostitute from Belgium, looks at the clocks in the window and says: "Don't kid me."
It is an odd little scene, and on the face of it doesn't make sense. But it is the key to the book. The novel is about time and death. For Georgette and Jake, who are survivors of the 1914-18 war, time doesn't exist in the traditional sense. For the survivors of the war, as for the dead, time is understood to be over.
In the 19th century, most Americans considered the passage of time to be a metronome of human progress. The equation of time with progress was a form of boosterism, born from the great success of the industrial revolution and the Westward expansion of the country. As time went on, things got bigger, better, faster, richer and further West. Time and progress were synonymous.
For the war generation, this naively optimistic view of time and industrial progress ended abruptly and in it ended in violence. It seemed that industrial progress had paid itself off in the industrialization of death - the machine gun, the French 75s, the recoilless artillery of Krupp.
The Great War was not a gallant, romantic, sabers on horseback conflict like that depicted in late 19th century newspaper accounts of the Spanish American war. The Great War of 1914-18 came to be seen, from the point of view of writers in the 1920s, as an unfair fight between men and (indifferent, impersonal, efficient) killing machines. A highly mechanized slaughterhouse.
Hemingway's generation, the so-called "lost generation," was lost in fact. A generation died in the war. The statistics of mortality were for those days stunning and incredible.
The novel is set in Paris around 1924, six years after the armistice. For the characters who were soldiers or survivors like Jake and Georgette, the daily circuit of the sun is a clock without purpose. Time is meaningless to them, just as it is to the dead. Hence, the sun "also" rises. It happens every morning of course but it is an event that occurs off to one side. It does not bring the hope of a new dawn, it does not mean "life goes on." In this novel, emphatically, life does not go on - there is no progress.
The war survivors' perception of time has shrunk to the present moment, in which they live. They elaborately avoid looking back - the war is just a huge hole in their personal stories -- and they cannot look forward, in the sense of "looking forward to" a superior future. For the survivors of the war, time has been turned around, flipped. Death has already happened - it is behind them. They do see the sun rise and set. But although time passes, it does not really go anywhere.
The passage of time into a brighter future, the progress of the sun through a succession of time zones across the US from east to west - all this strikes the Belgian survivor, Georgette, as utter nonsense. "Don't kid me." She says.
The war is the silent, unmentionable core of The Sun Also Rises, but the characters sometimes mention it inadvertently, in asides, and the reader gets tiny glimpses of what happened to these people the war, and what it did to them.
They never move forward. Writers start, or fail to start, books that they never finish. Love affairs lead to nothing, no marriages and no babies. There is a constant theme of drinking to coast through the present and to forget the past. Another diversion is an obsessive concentration on the sensual minutia of the present moment. Jake, a former combat pilot who has suffered some sort of wound to his groin, never detailed, is outside of time in the biological sense that he cannot reproduce. He has lost his "line", that is, the line of familial and biological continuity between past and future.
Conflicts in the book frequently arise as mutually amazed confrontations between Americans who skipped the war, and still have their 19th century sense of optimism and progress and honor intact -- and the "new" Americans like Hemingway - expatriates from American space but, more importantly, from the old American sense of time as something positive. In what has probably become the most famous line in the book Jakes says: "I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together." As an American war veteran, Jake himself has a huge rip through his own story.
This year, The Sun Also Rises is 80 years old. Frozen in time, exactly as Hemingway intended. A difficult, complicated book that is, nevertheless, very easy to read.