As I said in a comment in another post, I have a love/hate relationship with this book and Hemingway. I appreciate Hemingway’s genius, his exquisite manner of storytelling and the amount of emotion he can convey in just one sentence. I love the “bohemianism” of the setting, of the characters. On the other hand, I hate Hemingway’s “macho” notions, how he romanticizes something as barbaric as bullfighting, how he idealizes not necessarily the braveness of men, but their aggressiveness.
It is fair to say that bullfighting scenes almost ruined the book for me. I know it is fiction and I should take it as part of a bigger work of art, but having read quite a bit about Hemingway’s life, hobbies and interests and knowing that this book is based on real-life events, I couldn't help getting a little mad. I have heard every argument saying it is an ancient tradition, that it represents the identity of a country, etc. That is nonsense. It is a barbaric tradition that should not continue. I don’t like people who torture animals for entertainment (and then have the nerve to call it art).
It sickened me to read the parts of the bullring. I tried to be as objective as possible, reminding myself that it was part of a story and had its purpose there. I have read many other unpleasant things before and they didn’t affect me this way. I have read about horrible wars, death, misery. Why this, then? Why was this affecting me so? And not in the way Hemingway intended: it was making me angry and sad. Then, I realized it was because Hemingway was romanticizing it, because the bullfighter was supposed to be some kind of hero and example of masculinity in the story. What affected me was not the bullfighting itself (within the story) but the perspective from which it was written and by someone who thought it was beautiful. That sickened me. I guess I’ll never understand how making another living creature suffer became a sport, the object of fanaticism and admiration. How a genius man as Hemingway thought it was beautiful to see a bull bleed to death.
I could rant about this for pages but I don’t want to do that. There are many other noteworthy things I’d like to mention.
What about the characters? I loved the apparent freedom of their relationship. Brett is the center of everyone’s attention. Jake, Robert and Mike are in love with Brett. She is in love with Jake, engaged to Mike and having an affair with Robert, and then with the bullfighter. I really liked the lack of a judgmental tone in the narration. Brett is definitely a woman without the limitation of society’s prejudices and stereotypes for women’s behavior. She seemed to float around trying to be happy, making a lot of mistakes in the way and regretting them to a certain point but not really learning from them. As a contradiction to her own nature, she likes the “macho” idea of a man. When Romero, the bullfighter, kills the bull and presents to Brett the bull’s ears, I couldn’t help thinking of a medieval warrior presenting to his princess the head of his opponent.
After a while you can see the conflicts that lie below the surface. They are not really free; there’s a sort of disorientation making them sad. At the end of the book their underlying sadness is revealed. Hemingway is good at that.
That is the reason I do get the whole “lost generation” thing in this book. I don’t know if it is all the wine-drinking, the fighting, the feeling of not having anywhere clear to go, that made me think they were indeed a little bit lost. But this is the romantic part of the book I did enjoy. There is something nostalgic about it, the unfulfilled love between Brett and Jake and the uncertainty of their futures, of what will become of them or what they will have to settle for.
I could say that without the bullring scenes I would have loved this book. But then, would it have been the same book? Would it be Hemingway without his romantic ideas of masculinity and aggressiveness?
When I wrote my review of A Moveable Feast I said I could either love or hate the next book I read of Hemingway. I didn’t know it could actually be both. What I’m certain of now is that I will always have strong feelings about his books. I’m pretty sure I will never say “meeeh” to describe them.
Despite the whole bullfighting thing and the macho ideas of masculinity, I still want to read more. He writes beautifully, that I can most definitely say.