Excerpted from the full essay by Lesley M. M. Blume
Adapted from Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Lesley M. M. Blume.
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Only 22 years old when he first arrived in Paris in late 1921 with his new wife, Hadley, Ernest Hemingway already “wanted very much to be a great, great writer and at that moment wasn’t,” as his fellow expat and close friend Archibald MacLeish put it. Not that Hemingway expected immediate glory: at that time he knew that he had a lot to learn, but he had a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish and executed his goals with precision.
To those who first met him in Paris, he seemed aptly named: earnest. Eventually he would reveal his ability to achieve his noble goals through less than noble means and material. Both the author and his debut novel would be born of unrepentant ambition. Not only did he want to stand apart from his expatriate colleagues; he wanted to leave them in his dust.
Many expats at that time had grand literary ambitions, but beyond his good fortune, work ethic and obvious talent, Hemingway held yet another ace that the others did not: a peculiar sort of charisma. He was gregarious, smart and great-looking, and therefore a social prize. Because he was so opinionated, he drew the less assured like moths to a flame. Yet these are all components of a merely popular personality, not necessarily a charismatic one. Hemingway, however, could inspire slavish devotion during initial encounters, and no one has ever adequately articulated what made him so attractive to his peers. Some attribute his allure to his wicked wit and claim that he emanated an aura of excitement. Or it may have had something to do with his infectious enthusiasms, whether for icy Sancerre or heroic matadors or fish yanked from the Seine and fried on the spot. Maybe it was the way he listened to you: thoroughly, attentively.
Hemingway also proved irresistible to well-connected mentors—even before he had published a single word of fiction. Within weeks of arriving in Paris, he had enraptured two gods of the modernist movement, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. They were among the first of many figures who would clamor to support him; perhaps no other writer has ever been so flush with patrons.
These luminaries invited young Hemingway into their homes; they taught him everything they knew and helped sculpt him into the effective modern writer he longed to be. All along he watched and listened as he drank their tea and liquor. Soon many of Paris’s best-placed expat writers, editors and literary gatekeepers were also placing their resources at his feet. He unabashedly took what he needed and usually moved quickly on—repaying most of his patrons for their generosity in unexpected ways, to put it mildly.
Yet despite their patronage and his own furious efforts, Hemingway simply could not break through. By 1923 it was driving him crazy. It seemed that practically every month, another Fitzgerald short story appeared in another major American publication, but no one would publish the stories of Ernest Hemingway. Eventually a couple of Paris-based expat boutique publishers brought out two limited edition volumes of Hemingway poems, sketches and stories.
For the few who did read them, those stories gave an enticing glimpse into what a Hemingway novel might look like. Hemingway’s future was quietly discussed among those who might stand to profit from longform. Back in New York, one American publisher wrote wishfully to a friend in the mid-1920s, “Hemingway’s first novel might rock the country.” The time had come for Hemingway to make a bold move.
“I knew I must write a novel,” he later recalled.
Frankly, he had known it all along, but it wasn’t necessarily an easy feat to accomplish. Already there had been at least three false starts. Yet Hemingway refused to force the issue. The novel would happen when it was meant to happen. “I would put it off though until I could not help doing it,” he recalled later. “When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice.” Until then, there was just one way to get there, in his opinion.
“Let the pressure build.”
If you shake a bottle of champagne vigorously enough, the cork will eventually shoot out with explosive force. Just when the pressure on all fronts had reached intolerable levels, the cosmos gave Hemingway his luckiest break. It came in the form of a sensual, dissipated English aristocrat with a penchant for men’s fedoras and casual lovers. The moment Lady Duff Twysden turned up in Paris, everything changed for Hemingway.
At first he didn’t know it. But in the summer of 1925, when he went to the San Fermín bullfighting fiesta in Pamplona, Lady Duff Twysden came along. Hemingway adored Spain; he eventually described it as “the country that I loved more than any other except my own.” He drew deep inspiration from Spanish culture and bullfighting in particular: sitting ringside at a fight was like being at a war, he wrote. By the time they reached the fiesta, Hemingway appeared to have grown infatuated with Twysden, but she complicated any possibility of an affair by bringing along two of her lovers on the trip. One of them—Pat Guthrie—was a perpetually drunk Scottish debtor. The other, writer Harold Loeb, was the product of Princeton and two of New York City’s greatest and wealthiest Jewish families. Until Twysden entered the picture, Loeb had been one of Hemingway’s tennis friends and among his most ardent supporters. Now he was Hemingway’s rival.
The outing quickly degenerated into a Bacchanalian morass of sexual jealousy and gory spectacle. By the end of the fiesta, Loeb and Guthrie openly despised each other; Hemingway and Loeb would nearly come to fisticuffs in public over their entourage’s resident Jezebel; Lady Duff herself materialized at lunch one day with a black eye and a bruised forehead, possibly from a late-night scrap with Guthrie. Despite the war wound and the atmosphere she was creating, Twysden glowed throughout the fiesta. The drama became her.
It also became Hemingway, but in a different way. Seeing Twysden there amidst all of that pagan decadence triggered something in him. He immediately realized that he had material for an incendiary story. The moment he and Hadley left Pamplona to watch bullfights throughout the region, he began transcribing the entire spectacle onto paper, writing almost in a fever trance. Suddenly every illicit exchange, insult and bit of unrequited longing that had broken out during the fiesta had a serious literary currency. The Hemingways kept up a manic travel schedule as the story flooded out of him; parts of the story were added in Valencia, Madrid and Hendaye.
Hemingway eventually ricocheted back up to Paris, where he finished the first draft in September 1925.
Soon he was calling the finished result The Sun Also Rises, a phrase borrowed from the Bible. Hemingway knew that he had a hot property on his hands—and his ticket out of the literary backwater.
When The Sun Also Rises was released a year later, those who had been translated onto its pages were incredulous that it was being marketed as fiction. Unfortunately for Hemingway’s prototypes, others saw the book as a groundbreaking work, perhaps even an instant classic. At least one critic had noted that Hemingway had shown glimmers of genius with his stories and vignettes; now he was proving it. Of course some critics hated The Sun Also Rises, but few dismissed it as fluff. After all, it had a biblical title, and a weighty epigraph purloined from Gertrude Stein: “You are all a lost generation.” It had been clever of Hemingway to add these ingredients, which immediately notified readers that The Sun Also Rises wasn’t merely a run-of-the-mill wicked tell-all. Rather, it was profound cultural commentary. Hemingway made it clear that he was not interested in silly little Jazz Age stories of the F. Scott Fitzgerald variety. Though both authors wrote about profligate socialites who drank too much and slept with people they shouldn’t, Hemingway’s work, he was quick to point out, explored death, regeneration and the meaning of life.
And if that failed to entice readers, he added, there was “a lot of dope about high society” in it—always a reliable hook.
Ninety years later, the high-low siren call of The Sun Also Rises continues to beguile readers. Some other novels that have earned voice-of-a-generation status—Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for example—feel dated in comparison. But Sun still feels fresh and modern; it still sells an estimated 120,000 copies annually in America alone and remains a bestseller around the globe.
The Sun Also Rises still banks on the same dual function that made it a craze the moment it was released: it remains at once a vanguard work of modernist art and also a depiction of a sexy, glamorous world rife with naughty behavior—and little of the flawed human nature depicted in the book’s pages has changed.
“Everybody behaves badly,” observes protagonist Jake Barnes. “Give them the proper chance.”
Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016-17, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook. Season ticket holders receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.
Lesley M. M. Blume is an award-winning journalist, author and cultural historian. She contributes regularly to Vanity Fair, and her work has appeared in many other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Vogue, Town & Country, and Departures. She is a New Yorker currently based in Los Angeles.