From a literary standpoint, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” is a marvel.
Incorporating the author’s innovative “Iceberg Theory” of restrained narrative development, a unique array of nuanced characters based on real expatriates and a culturally analytical fault line which frames and unravels the Postwar period, the 1926 novel is engaging in both form and content. Above all of its written achievements, one aspect of its plot resonates with me profoundly: its portrayal of nightlife in Paris.
Hemingway illustrates that a night in Paris can be just as mystical as one would imagine. In Chapters III and IV, Jake, our protagonist, is thrust into a spontaneous adventure on the town. The variation in scene length as the sequence progresses is indicative of Paris’ complex relationship with temporality; in some instances, one moment can extend across pages, while in others, multitudes of events or observations are compounded into a single sentence:
“It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal” (22).
In my experience, this is what Paris veritably feels like when the sun sets. Stimuli wait to be acknowledged from every corner and a charming sense of collective energy diffuses in the air. There is so much going on that it is hard to isolate each variable. In fact, it is not individual factors that give a Parisian night its atmospheric significance, but rather, all of them taken as a whole, collaboratively shaping the overall experience.
Jake’s night is an unpredictable whirlwind: he meets a girl, flirts with her, takes her to a restaurant, visits a friend’s dancing club, chats with his friends, encounters his primary love interest (Brett Ashley), abandons his original date, hops between a variety of other bars with Brett, takes a cab to a park with Brett, reunites with his friends at yet another bar, goes home, cries about his unrequited feelings towards Brett, is awakened by Brett arriving at his apartment, shares a drink with Brett, and bids Brett farewell only to end up going to sleep as the sun is coming up. His adventure concludes not with a bang, but with a whisper: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing” (42).
My nights in Paris have felt equally as mercurial as Jake’s. In August, I was on my way to a club in Le Marais with a 10 or 15-person group of NYU Paris students when we stumbled upon a Syrian family in the metro that was unsure of where to go; abruptly, we decided to help them and dedicated the next 40 minutes or so to carrying their suitcases and strollers, accompanying them on each train they needed to take to reach their destination. In September, after coming back from a day trip to Versailles, my travel partners and I made an impromptu decision to meet up with some new friends and explore the bars along Canal St. Martin—we didn’t go to sleep until past 7 AM. Just last week, after attending an alternative concert at the Bataclan, my friend and I decided to take a midnight stroll along La Rive Droite of the Seine river; it was a Tuesday night. Something about this city’s spirit lends itself to spontaneity. And something about the ends of these nights’ lends itself to self-reflection.
As I attempted to emulate in the previous paragraph, Hemingway uses Parisian streets and landmarks as authenticating details to indicate Jake’s movement around the city. To name a few examples, he cites Avenue de l’Opéra, Parc Montsouris, Boulevard Montparnasse, and Boulevard St. Michel. As a reader, these geographic indicators help me put the story in context and relate it to my own spatial understanding of Paris.
Furthermore, the fragments of dialogue that are embedded in this sequence individually contain little substance but conjointly convey deep emotional meaning. When Jake and Brett initially interact in the dancing club, they exchange some quick words, equally as resentful of one another’s romantic conquests:
“What possessed you to bring her?”
“I don’t know, I just brought her.”
“You’re getting damned romantic.”
“No, not now.”
“Let’s get out of here. She’s well taken care of.”
“Do you want to?”
“Would I ask you if I didn’t want to?” (31).
The chaotic back-and-forth of their interaction feels experiential; superficial, rapid remarks are conducive to nightlife environments. With music blaring, crowds rumbling, and alcohol flowing, we often can’t afford to say more than what’s on the surface. Additionally, the wielder of each piece of dialogue becomes unclear after a certain point (wait—which one of them said that? What are they referring to? What does that mean?). I can’t recount the number of conversations I’ve had which have developed in a similar manner in such settings.
In nearly every sense, Hemingway’s portrayal of Parisian nights runs in parallel with the memories I have collected so far. A night in Paris can indeed be a whirlwind of paradoxical emotions, places, sights, and sounds. A night in Paris can indeed end in the morning (actually, I have yet to go out in Paris and be in bed before 4 AM). A night in Paris can indeed be defined by fleeting, seemingly inconsequential chats. And a night in Paris can indeed result in stumbling into Shakespeare and Co. after a stroll over the Seine only to find “The Sun Also Rises” displayed at the very front of the entryway, a badge of honor for the iconic bookshop.
Reading this novel as my semester in Paris begins to wrap up and I become cognizant of the reality that my nights in Paris are limited has been truly invigorating. It is reassuring to know that I can always return to this literary masterpiece if I wish to be immersed in the city, after dark, once again.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner, 2006.