- - Wednesday, September 7, 2016


By Lesley M.M. Blume

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 322 pages, illustrated

There’s an old saying that the less you know about how sausages and legislation are made the better. After reading journalist Lesley Blume’s vivid character- and fact-filled book, it would seem that we might have to add literary masterpieces to that unsavory club. At least, that appears to be the case with Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which may not be his best book (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) or even the one that really cemented his reputation as a great novelist (“A Farewell to Arms”), but which launched his career with a bang.

Ms. Blume spares us none of the gory details of betrayals — literary and personal — naked ambition, ruthlessness, and all manner of nastiness that went into the making of this stunning debut, all of which might leave a nasty taste in our mouths. Yet she has somehow managed to retain her admiration for it as a work of literature.

Ms. Blume takes her title from “The Sun Also Rises” itself:

” ‘Everybody behaves badly,’ observes protagonist Jake Barnes. ‘Give them the proper chance.’ “

She goes on to assert that “It was true then and remains true now,” but she is not only talking about how little people have altered in those nine decades. She is bolstering her argument for the novel’s timelessness and universality:

“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 and remains a bestseller round the globe. [It] 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.”

And her high opinion is all the more remarkable for knowing that not only did the author’s blood, sweat and tears go into its creation, but so many others were sacrificed on the altar of his ambition, chewed to bits in the brutal meat grinder into which he fed real-life human beings as just so much raw material.

One of the distinguishing features of “Everybody Behaves Badly” is just how crammed with anecdotes and facts it is — not to mention judgment and analysis. Ms. Blume has cast her net wide and dug deeply and intelligently into primary and secondary sources, all of which is reflected in her fulsome acknowledgments and unusually copious and informative footnotes. I would particularly urge readers to be sure not to skip these, for they are full of additional information and insights.

And it is precisely all this assiduousness on her part that makes this such a valuable addition to the vast literature on Hemingway, modernism, Paris in the 1920s, expatriate American culture, etc. The fact that Hemingway alternated between being a bastard and a nice guy, although more apt to take the low road than the high, and hit below the belt both outside and inside his beloved boxing arena, is not exactly news. The story of how he dumped the publisher who had agreed to give an unknown a chance in favor of his frenemy and precursor F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fabled editor Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons is well-known. Ditto his habit of ruthlessly dumping one wife after another, plus a host of mentors, patrons and friends, when something better (he thought) came along, notwithstanding a lot of lachrymose, handwringing and posturing.

Yet Ms. Blume has managed to come up with words and actions that will chill the blood of even those who fancy themselves hardened to Hemingway’s peculiar brand of viciousness. His casual use of anti-Semitic and other epithets applying to various groups sound harshly in the reader’s ears, with no wit or humor to soften them. His hypocrisy and the sense that even he never knew whether he was self-deluded are revealed over and over again. Yet Ms. Blume never loses sight of how he swept aside all the prevailing extraneous literary decorativeness.

For the simple fact is that, starting with “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway changed the landscape of not just American literature but the way almost all English-speaking authors write prose. In his way, this was just as influential a watershed as when Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” had transformed poetry forever a century and a quarter before. No wonder Ms. Blume reports that “Charles Scribner III says he would be shocked if worldwide sales were under 300,000 copies a year.” What better proof of its enduring worth is such continuing appetite for what it has to offer in all seasons.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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