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Review: 'Everybody Behaves Badly' looks at how Hemingway transformed fact into fiction

The title of Lesley Blume's enticing study of the real-life people in Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises occurs in a brief exchange between the novel's war-weary protagonists, Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes. When Brett tells Jake how sick she has become of her present paramour, Robert Cohn — "Nobody else would behave as badly" — Jake replies, "Everybody behaves badly . . . Give them the proper chance."

"Everybody" comprises an entire generation of American expatriates in Paris between the world wars that Gertrude Stein labeled lost and damned, un generation perdue. Blume explains, "It wasn't their fault that they were drunk, aimless, and destructive; they had been ruined by an ignoble war and the flawed institutions that used to give life meaning."

More particularly, the title of Everybody Behaves Badly describes the miscreant behavior of Hemingway's characters and their recognizable counterparts outside the novel, the author's problematic literary ethics and abuse of friends, even the infighting of Hemingway's publishers, some of whom believed the novel too vulgar to publish.

The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway's first novel, published in 1926, and it established his reputation as a giant of modernist literature. Blume never loses sight of the grimness of World War I in the novel's background. But in her tell-all scenario Hemingway's motives for writing it are more personal: "I'm going to get those bastards," Hemingway tells Kitty Cannell, one of the novel's other real people. "I'm going to tear them apart." He's referring particularly to Harold Loeb, the story's Robert Cohn, and Bill Smith, one of the inspirations for Bill Gorton.

But the way in which all the main characters' counterparts torment one another with infidelities, jealousies and caustic verbal assaults, including Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett Ashley), Pat Guthrie (Mike Campbell) and the author himself (Jake Barnes), evokes Sartre's famous remark that "Hell is other people." Not only does Hemingway describe events that actually transpired in Montparnasse cafes like Le Select, Le Dome, La Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas, but also intimate details of people's personal lives — failed marriages, assorted indiscretions and painfully unflattering idiosyncrasies of temper and speech.

The unwitting real-life models, Blume writes, react to their co-opted lives with varying degrees of rage and dismay. It was reported, for instance, that the portrait of Loeb as the romantic fool Cohn earned Loeb nearly a decade on a psychiatrist's couch, and that he went gunning for the author. Keeping tabs on his "demented characters," as he called them after the book's publication, Hemingway insisted the only objection by the hard-drinking, promiscuous Twysden was that she never had slept with the bloody bullfighter Cayetano Ordóñez. Hemingway was still fictionalizing. Duff reportedly said she was furious about the book and deeply hurt by his portrayal of her.

Blume's explorations of the novel as roman a clef prompt us to ask whose badness was worse: the purposeful dissipation of the author's literary victims or his own unrepentant ambition and abuse of friends and family — his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and John, the son they had two years into their Paris adventure. Calling Hemingway "the original Limelight Kid," editor Robert McAlmond claims Hemingway prized people who were useful to his career and discarded them if they were not.

Patrick Hemingway, another of the author's sons, remarks that family life for his father was the enemy of accomplishment. To Hadley's credit, neither personal neglect nor her husband's flagrant infidelity with second wife-to-be Pauline Pfeiffer tarnished her respect for his literary genius or her pride in The Sun Also Rises, dedicated to her and which she signed for me, "From one who also saw the sun rise."

Mistreatment aside, though Blume does not speculate about this, I suspect Hemingway's abiding love for Hadley explains her otherwise mysterious omission from the novel. One might expect Hemingway's rancor toward fellow expats like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and Stein (the list goes on) who assisted his early career to have been less forgivable. Yet, with the notable exception of Stein, they remained Hemingway's steadfast admirers however execrable his slights.

Loeb himself was one of Hemingway's most ardent supporters, causing him to ask not just why his friend treated him so harshly, but why so literally. Ritual humiliation? The killing off of competitors to advance his career? True to the novel's real-life underpinnings, Hemingway resented Loeb's less than reverential response to bullfighting and was genuinely angry about Loeb's fling with Twysden. The only worse offense, Blume suggests, was Loeb's stealing the limelight from Hemingway by outshining him in an amateur bullfight in Pamplona, heroism celebrated not only around town but in American newspapers.

Hemingway seemingly translated his characters' misdeeds onto paper so accurately that fellow expats McAlmond and Donald Ogden Stewart were amazed their story was marketed as fiction. In their view, Hemingway did little more than describe what happened, as if delivering a juicy scoop on deadline. The Saturday Review of Literature informed readers that neither the plot nor a single one of Hemingway's characters could be credited as being the product of the author's imagination. Rather than fictional accomplishment, the book was at best an example of incisive reporting.

As problematic as Hemingway's unapologetic ambition and strained loyalties may be, Blume's purpose is not to vilify him but to demonstrate his mastery of the roman a clef. Hemingway's response to Loeb's pained query — why be so literal — may sound vindictive, but it explains his belief that a writer should write only about what he truly knows, the art of the personal he perfected as no writer before or after him. "To damn people properly," he said, "you must have the dope on them. When you are writing stories about actual people, you should make them like those people in everything except telephone addresses, or the characterization would not ring true."

We see how Hemingway's early training as a journalist nurtures the uncanny sensitivity to the here and now that makes his expatriate drama so gripping and real, stripping language clean, as he said, to lay it bare to the bone. Blume shows us how the author's careful process of selection and placement makes his debut novel an exemplum of autobiographical fiction. While the real Ordóñez overindulged in flamenco parties, racy women and Spanish sherry, his more solemn counterpart, the novel's Pedro Romero, becomes a model of inner nobility and traditional ethics, making Lady Brett's seduction of him more disgraceful and inspiring Barnes' personal regeneration. Conversely, Hemingway paints Loeb as a lightweight interloper rather than the man he was, sensitive and devoted to the art of writing.

Blume calls Hemingway's reimagined version of himself as the impotent Barnes his most fascinating transformation. Perhaps he was channeling his frustration over the real Twysden's possible refusal to sleep with him. Regardless, with typically reliable judgment Blume applauds the decision as daring and artistically brilliant. Unlike the author's less consequential war injuries, Jake's sexual wound leaves him capable of all normal feelings as a man but incapable of consummating them. This accentuates his torturous desire for Lady Brett while making him the tragic embodiment of postwar futility. As well, it demonstrates Hemingway's willingness to compromise his own dignity — to challenge the aggressively masculine image he coveted if it served his art.

True to Hemingway's evolving "iceberg theory" of omission, Jake's wound has to be inferred though allusions in dialogue and private ruminations, making the reader more an active participant. Clearly this was something new under the sun, showcasing the novel as a classic of modernist economy and suggestion.

Blume's achievement is doubly remarkable. As an award-winning journalist and cultural historian, she revisits the intense nightlife of Parisian bars and cafes and the explosive, rivalrous drama of Pamplona in a chiseled, precise style that would please the master himself. By filling in Hemingway's purposeful silences and omissions with the story's real-life people and actual events, she accentuates the author's artistic genius and enlarges our understanding of the novel's complex characters and themes. This is a book for novice Hemingway readers as well as veterans of his work.

Lawrence R. Broer is a professor emeritus of English at the University of South Florida. His books include "Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice," co-edited with Gloria Holland, and "Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War."

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'

By Lesley M. M. Blume

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

330 pages, $27

Review: 'Everybody Behaves Badly' looks at how Hemingway transformed fact into fiction 06/23/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2016 10:33am]
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