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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Iceberg Ahead! - The Sun Also Rises

Well. Last week’s post caused quite a stir. It did say that the characters in Sun are largely static, that Sun lacks the transformational characteristics of a novel, and that Hemingway seemed to portray the lost generation as lost, instead of redeemed, as he claimed he wanted to. There was the hate mail, of course, but most troubling was being followed by the burly bearded fellow with the large-bore hunting rifle who kept shouting that I was an illiterate scoundrel. Hemingway himself, you ask? How could that be, Hemingway died sixty-two years ago.

A ghost perhaps. Re-enactor?

I will press on.

This week, it’s time to look at the style of Sun.

Style in literature is the literary element that describes the ways that the author uses words — the author's word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images, and meaning in the text.

The Sun style, based on Hemingway’s experience as a newspaper reporter and short story writer, is to show, not tell, and to employ what he called the “iceberg” method.

Let us quote him.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

We know that Hemingway knew the characters and events in Sun intimately. Most things—unlike Jake Barnes, he did have a penis). So he deliberately omitted things that he knew, leaving the reader to make sense of the text. After all, this is what any writer does, it would be impossible and tedious to attempt to describe experience moment to moment. Please remember our reference to Umberto Eco’s comment that this moment-to-moment focus characterizes pornography, not literature.

But Hemingway took this “iceberg-ness” to an extreme.

The first appearance of Brett is a fine example. The fellas are at a Parisian dance hall.

“Hello, you chaps.”

“Hello, Brett,” I said. “Why aren’t you tight?”

“Never going to get tight anymore. I say, give a chap a brandy and soda.”

She stood holding the glass and I saw Robert Cohn looking at her…”

Now, the reader might think that Brett is not a terribly significant character. Jake Barnes is one, given his prominence in narrating the story. Robert Cohn as well, as he appears straight off in the first paragraph. But Brett—there’s been no previous mention of her. There are a number of other characters shown in the story so far, and the reader is trying to decide who is important, who is not. At this point, based on whose gotten the most attention, it would not be unreasonable to think Sun will be a story about Jake and Robert and his wife Frances. If one intuits that Brett is significant and tries to pry apart these quoted lines to make meaning of what’s being shown, there’s little help. The fact is, one must read further and struggle to make sense of the story, in order to grasp that Brett and Jake have known each other a while and are in love. Perhaps there’s a possibility that Jake is jealous of Robert Cohn’s eyeing Brett—we shall see later that this possibility is developed. But these threads are all below the surface. A different writer might do it this way: (a different style).

“Hello you chaps.”

Brett Ashley and I had known each other for some time, in fact she and I were in love, an unfulfilled love due to my nasty war wound that had left me unable to have sexual intercourse.

“Hello Brett,” I said. “Why aren’t you tight?”

Brett was a notorious alcoholic—we all were. My question to her was meant as a joke, because from her demeanor I could see that she was already drunk.

I saw Robert Cohn looking at her and wanted to strangle him because I could imagine the two of them having an affair. I could imagine all kinds of things—kissing, caressing, all the sexual behavior that was denied to me because of my nasty war wound.”

Or a different writer might start the novel by writing something like this:

“The war left me with a nasty wound that rendered me unable to have sexual intercourse, and this led to considerable frustration between me and Lady Brett Ashley—who had more curves than a racing yacht. We were in love, but I could only love her vicariously through other men. Like Robert Cohn and that bullfighter chap.”

‘Kay, you probably get the idea. This kind of exposition would mean less work for the reader, but perhaps less satisfaction because the writer would be providing most of the answers to most of the questions. The answer to the question how much to take out is a judgement call, no? Take out too much and the reader won’t understand the story. The author-ship hits the iceberg.

Ha ha!

Of course, there are other aspects to Hemingway’s style, including the use of a lot of dialogue, active verbs, and short sentences. The passage below shows how he wrote many simple sentences to good effect, sentences with the same structure: subject – verb – object:

“As a matter of fact, supper was a pleasant meal. Brett wore a black, sleeveless evening dress. She looked quite beautiful. Mike acted as though nothing had happened. I had to go up and bring Robert Cohn down. He was reserved and formal, and his face was still taut and sallow, but he cheered up finally. He could not stop looking at Brett…”

Yes, Robert Cohn. Let’s pick this up next time and look more closely at Mr. Cohn’s role and the effect it creates.

Till then.

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