Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises

Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway
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Sep 27, 2007

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bookshelves: fiction, 2009, classics, book-club, re-read
Read 2 times. Last read November 24, 2009.

I first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which is the narrator's description and explanation of a character called Robert Cohn. I don't know why I had so much trouble reading it, just that I couldn't follow it, couldn't keep track of it. It wasn't a good way to start. Then, I was hoping right up to the last page for a happy ending. I felt cheated that I didn't get it. Kind of like "why the hell did I read this then?"

This time around (reading it again for a book club - I missed the meeting, incidentally), because I knew what to expect, I could focus on all the other things in the novel, knowing that the narrator, Jake, would still be alone at the end of it. That he wouldn't get to keep Brett. And I had no trouble reading the first chapter. Really, the prose is incredibly easy to read, simplistic even, except for when the descriptions get vague.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Set in 1924, Fiesta is the story of Jake, an American living and working in Paris, who goes to Pamplona in Spain to see the bull fighting with some friends, a mix of American and English ex-pats - one of which is Brett, Lady Ashley, a beautiful and charismatic woman of 34 who's waiting for her divorce to come through so she can marry a bankrupt, Mike Campbell.

Jake and Brett met during the war, when he was recovering from an injury. They fell in love, but his injury was of the groin variety so they can't be physically together - hence, she doesn't want to stay with him even though she loves him. Instead, she has casual relationships and affairs, while Jake has to watch. Sometimes he even introduces them. But there's nothing he can do about it.

The story is heavily detailed with the kind of descriptions that, while apparently perfectly acceptable in classics and other works of literature, can be the cause of some rather heavy criticism in genre fiction. Like so:
"I unpacked my bags and stacked the books on the table beside the head of the bed, put out my shaving things, hung up some clothes in the big armoire, and made up a bundle for the laundry. Then I took a shower in the bathroom and went down to lunch." (p.207)

It would be petty of me to ask, Where else would he take a shower? wouldn't it. Shame.

This book is all prose, very little plot. It's not that it's wordy, rather that it reads like a mouth full of crooked, over-crowded teeth. The dialogue is very 20s-specific, and if I was the kind of reviewer who liked to write snappy, witty, clever little reviews, the first thing I'd do is satirise the dialogue. Like so:
"I feel so rotten!" Brett said.
"Don't be a damned fool," Jake said.
"The count's a brick."
"Let's have a drink."
"Here's the pub."
"This is a hell of a place," Bill said.
"Why don't you see when you're not wanted, Cohn? Go away. Take that sad Jewish face away," said Mike.
"I feel like hell. Don't let's talk," said Brett.
"It's been damned hard on Mike."
"Do you still love me Jake?" asked Brett.
"Because I'm a goner. I'm in love with the bullfighting boy."
"It's been damned hard on Mike."
"Where's that beer?" Mike asked.

And so on. A lot of repetition, a lot of drunken mouthing off, a lot of really very pointless, empty conversation that goes round and round in circles. The problem is, of course, that the characters are all horrible, shallow, self-interested, boorish, ill-mannered, childish tourists, the kind that make you cringe. Jake is probably the only character you can feel any real sympathy for, but even he has his moments.

As the first-person narrator, it's amazing how little we know Jake's thoughts. He hides behind recounting pointless dialogue and describing mundane things. There are times when he gets thoughtful, wistful even, and those parts are what make the novel worthwhile. It's also very easy to feel like you're in Paris, and Spain. The heavily descriptive prose does help create a realistic, breathing setting. Especially when they reach Pamplona, to watch the bull-fighting. It just also happens to be the place where their behaviour becomes even more embarrassing.

I'm not sure if Hemingway was criticising his fellow ex-pats or not - but I think he is. Maybe he was just describing it how it was - and it is believable. Jake isn't a judgemental character, but I wonder how much of that is Jake and how much Hemingway? This edition doesn't come with any additional notes or introductions or appendices, so I haven't read anything about the novel that might shed light on this. As a chronicle of ex-pat life, especially among those who have money, in the 20s, and of bull-fighting, it's a success. But it's still two-dimensional.

As for the bull-fighting, it's one of the more interesting sections, especially towards the end where there's an involved recounting of three bull-fighters at work. We now know that bull's are red-green colour-blind; it's the movement of the cape that enrages them, not the colour. So I wonder what was wrong with the bull Jake assumed was colour-blind?

As simplistic as I've made this novel sound, there is quite a lot going on in the details, things that make it both interesting and deplorable. The bull fighting, for instance, is both a commemoration and a presentation of a highly controversial topic. There's certainly a parallel between the beauty and brutality of the bull-fighting, and the way these ex-pats treat each other. They are at once unlikeable, and likeable. It just goes to show how confounding humans can be, and how contradictory.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 27, 2007 – Shelved
October 27, 2007 – Shelved as: fiction
Started Reading
November 24, 2009 – Finished Reading
November 25, 2009 – Shelved as: 2009
November 25, 2009 – Shelved as: classics
November 25, 2009 – Shelved as: book-club
November 25, 2009 – Shelved as: re-read

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Ally The Bright Young Things are reading this novel in June. We'd love you to share your views about it with us. If you haven't already checked us out why not join us?

Hope to see you there soon.


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