Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story behind Hemingway's Masterpiece "The Sun Also Rises"

Sep 2, 2016

“Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises’”

Author: Lesley M.M. Blume

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pages: 237           

Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)

The New York publishers’ obsession with the 1920s continues with “Everyone Behaves Badly.” Lesley Blume might have fictionalized the subject and produced something in the nature of “Z” or “The Paris Wife” or “The Woman in the Photograph,” but instead chose to research the making of “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) about as thoroughly as anyone could and present the story as narrative non-fiction. Her motivation, Blume says in an interview: “I hadn’t realized that [Lady] Brett was drawn from real life.”

She should have.

Many books, “The Sun Set” in particular, have discussed the people Hemingway based his characters on. Michael Reynolds devotes volume two of his authoritative five-volume biography of Hemingway to the Paris years, but Reynolds is nowhere cited here. Scott Donaldson, another Hemingway expert, calls Reynolds’ work “the best book on how Hemingway became Hemingway.”
So, this information was already well known to students of Hemingway and Paris in the ’20s. Nevertheless, for general readers, Blume has accomplished no small feat in gathering masses of material new and old, and making her story move.

She has scoured the recently published first three volumes of Hemingway’s letters, then many biographies of Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and the rest, studies of them, their memoirs and reminiscences of one another .

Blume’s book is packed and she in fact gathered so much information that the notes, information she thought she didn’t have room for in the text, run 75 pages and are actually worth reading. Her epilogue follows the models for the characters through to their deaths. Harold Loeb, who was a Guggenheim, lived until 1974, Lady Duff Twysden only until 1938. The comic writer Donald Ogden Stewart, the model for Bill Gorton, lived to be 85 and died in 1980.

The world of “The Sun Also Rises” was not a distant mythological period to those people.

Blume tells of Hemingway’s move to Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and his early years, living in extremely modest circumstances and working hard.

She acknowledges his “charisma” and says “He was gregarious, smart, and great-looking” with “infectious enthusiasms” such as bicycle racing, fishing, boxing, tennis and of course bullfighting.

Ernest radiated excitement and curiosity, and when he became interested in a subject, he focused until he had mastered it to his satisfaction. Hemingway meant to become an expert and sometimes came off as a know-it-all, but his 1932 “Death in the Afternoon” was considered by many to be the handbook on understanding the corrida.

Blume seems conflicted about Hem’s personality; her tone is a little snide throughout. She informs the reader that Hemingway and Loeb sometimes boxed and played tennis thusly: “When they weren’t bludgeoning each other or whacking balls across a net, [they] frequented cafes and bars together, drinking and telling stories.”

Hemingway’s particular version of maleness is clearly no longer in vogue.

But she is respectful of his ferocious work ethic and determination, resisting (some of) the temptations of Paris. Blume gives a full accounting of Hemingway’s increasing circle of friends which would include Scott Fitzgerald (not Zelda, but that’s another story), Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and Sara and Gerald Murphy. She acknowledges he had a gift for friendship.

As is perfectly natural, Blume wants to spice up her story whenever possible.

Blume suggests that “everyone around the Quarter began to wonder if Hemingway was sleeping with Lady Duff—a question that has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction.” She also writes that before the affair with Pauline, believed by some to be a 29-year-old husband-hunting virgin, that ended in his divorce and their marriage, he might have been with Pauline’s sister Virginia: “…that spring they were increasingly seen in each other’s company.” Virginia was reportedly gay.

In Paris, Ernest wrote the vignettes that would make up most of “In Our Time,” and looked for the subject that would make his first novel. The Pamplona fiestas provided his structure and new material; the gang he went with provided the real-life models. Yes, the characters are based on Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and others—fictional characters usually are based at least in part on real people—but great writers have the gift of recognizing solid gold material when they see it. Hemingway knew the bullfight, and later deep sea fishing and still later big game hunting, were fresh subjects that would fascinate readers who knew nothing about them.

Energized, Ernest wrote the first 80,000 words of “Sun” in 2 months.

Blume seems to side with those who want to call this “reporting,” not fiction, as if an event occurred and he wrote it up. This does not acknowledge that the fiesta at which these events actually occurred was not his first. He had gone with buddies, then with Hadley, then in July 1924 with a larger entourage, then with the group that included Duff Twysden and Loeb.

That fiesta inspired the basic love quadrangle plot: emasculated Jake loves Brett; hopeless Loeb loves Brett; Brett sleeps with bullfighter. All of this creates enormous sexual tension, with the “Spanish tragedy,” the bullfights, as background. Hemingway’s genius is in how he uses this material. To give Jake his tragic wound, invent the frustrated affair with Brett, and make the bullfight come alive when no one had ever heard of it, is brilliant.

True, Hemingway was ungrateful to those friends who helped him early, especially Sherwood Anderson and Scott Fitzgerald, and certainly was no model husband, but, as Blume grudgingly acknowledges, Hemingway made this book into a “generation-defining event.” To critic Calvin Tomkins it was “a blast out of the zeitgeist.” Because of Hemingway’s spare, utterly fresh style, Archibald MacLeish put Ernest on the same level as Picasso and Stravinsky. The Nobel Prize committee admired Hemingway’s writing style too.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.