In preparation for our trip to France this summer, I’ve been collecting travel books (my kids say I’m one book shy of a hoard). I’m not sure why I think I need this many travel books — I’ll never read them all, and I can’t take them with me. I guess they make me feel prepared, even if I’m not. Last night, I was leafing through one of my books about Paris, and I started reading about the Montparnasse district, and its reputation as a literary hive of the 1920s.
And you can’t talk literary hive of the 1920s in Paris without . . . Ernest Hemingway.
Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite writers of all time and ever. Today’s words come from Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, a book about the aimless wanderings of the Lost Generation — a phrase coined by one of Hemingway’s literary BFFs, Gertrude Stein. The Lost Generation refers to a generation of young people shattered by World War I, disillusioned by the world, and searching for a new self identity, all while trying to cope with feelings of alienation and detachment.
Wow, that was really English-teachery. Sorry.
But the teacher in me can’t abide words without context (it makes me all twitchy), so grab a glass of wine, and indulge me.
If you’ve never read The Sun Also Rises (or your copy has a half-inch of time and dust on it), I’ll summarize the plot for you as quickly and painlessly as possible (this is in no way an academic or complete summary):
In a nutshell, a group of 20-something expats sits around in Paris cafes, drinking absurd amounts of alcohol, and having a lot of conversations about, well, nothing. I swear some of their conversations are like an episode of Seinfeld (it’s a show about nothing!). But those conversations spark a compulsive wanderlust. The group decides to take a road trip to Spain (so they can find themselves), where they watch the running of the bulls, see a bullfight, have an epic fiesta, and go fishing in the Pyrennes.
Which is exactly what I do when I’m feeling detached and want to find myself.
The protagonist, Jake Barnes, is an American World War I veteran. He was injured rather, um, mechanically, during the war (that’s my delicate way of saying he’s impotent). He’s paralyzed by his masculine insecurities, and represents an entire generation of men damaged physically and emotionally by war. (Psst! Jake = Hemingway). Jake is in love with a British socialite flapper/social predator named Lady Brett Ashley. Brett served as a nurse in World War I (which is where she met Jake). Brett says she’s in love with Jake, but they aren’t together because she can’t/won’t get past that whole impotence thing. That, and she’s engaged to a Scottish war veteran named Mike Campbell, who is a raging, often violent, drunk. Jake’s frenemy, Robert Cohn (the only non-veteran in the group), falls madly in love with Brett (it seems like the entire Lost Generation is in love with Brett), and they have an affair. But Brett doesn’t give a squat about Cohn. Because she’s set her sights on a a 19-year old bullfighter named Pedro, who the group meets while they’re in Spain. And then more drama happens.
How’s that for an awkward group dynamic? What can I say? These people have issues.
And that brings me (finally) to today’s words . . .
At this point in the story, Jake and the rest of the gang have finally surfaced from an epic fiesta in Spain (think Animal House, the morning after). It’s really a wonder none of them ended up in the emergency room. They all go their separate ways, and Jake returns to France for some rest. He’s alone for the first time in quite a while, and, without the chaos of group drama, he starts to feel a little serene:
Château Margaux? Well played, Jake. Jake seems to be dealing with the alienation and detachment issue just fine — he’s finally found a little peace in solitude.
Until Brett sends a telegram from Madrid saying she needs him there, immediately. And off he goes. (Don’t worry — he finished the Margaux before he left).