How the characters in Ernest Hemingway novels never wake up with hangovers is beyond me. Is it water and aspirin before bed? Pedialyte for breakfast? A shot of pickle juice first thing in the morning?
The characters of The Sun Also Rises must know a cure the rest of us don’t, since they spend their lives getting plastered in cafés and hotels across Europe. It’s the brand of debauchery that made Paris iconic in the twenties– with the help of writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and the revolving door of artists, socialites, and war veterans that they befriended/married/cheated with/all of the above. Hemingway based the characters of Rises on this ragtag crew: the femme fatale Brett is based on Mary Duff Stirling, a British socialite Hemingway pursued; Brett’s suitor Cohn is assumed to be Harold Loeb, Mary’s current fling; protagonist Jake was originally called “Hem” in the early drafts, as if the internal monologue of superiority and angst wasn’t already a dead giveaway. The entire plot pivots around a weeklong trip to the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain, an identical trip to the one Hemingway took with his wife, Mary, Harold, and a handful of other friends. Sweltering afternoons, red wine, raging bulls… What could go wrong?
Everything, of course. To Hemingway, being drunk in Paris was an art form. Being drunk in Spain was a blood sport. French cafés come with certain guardrails, courtesies that keep things civilized. From the moment you sit down, you’re on display. Tables and chairs are organized in order to watch people stroll by, yes, but you go to cafés to be seen as much as to see. But this atmosphere isn’t conducive to the sun-up to sundown benders Hemingway penned for his characters in Rises– they needed a change of scenery, somewhere to take the gloves off.
In a twisted way, the posse debauches the debauched. Hemingway is less concerned with Pamplona’s moral standards than he is with the vices the group brings to Pamplona. Brett seduces a young matador. Jake throws back three bottles of wine at lunch. Cohn gets in a fistfight with anything that moves. They realize, as many travellers do, that changing location doesn’t automatically generate a fresh psyche. Jake and his companions drink and argue and brawl through the city as they did in Paris, only here there are no guard rails.
Hemingway hits the nail on the head early on, when Jake opens up to Cohn before their friendship hits the rocks. “Going to another country doesn’t make any difference,” Jake says. “I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” It’s not until later that the subtler truth is shared, during a discussion of the bullfights. Around the time of his trip, Hemingway was considering penning a nonfiction book about the sport, later deciding to turn the dramatic week into a novel. But he retained some of original concept, and included this: “In bull-fighting they speak of the terrain of the bull and the terrain of the bull-fighter. As long as a bull-fighter stays in his own terrain he is comparatively safe. Each time he enters into the terrain of the bull he is in great danger.”
The bull could be anything. For them, the Lost Generation, it was the war, alcoholism, women, depression, America, the list goes on. For us, it’s travel, or the new city we inhabit, or the unknown itself. We can stay on our own terrain, isolated, or enter the bull’s domain and meet it head-on. It’s our choice. For what it’s worth, Hemingway makes it clear which side he would choose in Chapter 2: “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”