The dialogue below is something you might expect from the very best of a Woody Allen or Larry David script yet Hemingway did it in the 1920s.
Following on from last week’s reflections on Ernest Hemingway’s short declarative sentences and prose we continue our exploration of what his biographer Jeffrey Meyers described “Hemingway’s greatest work” – The Sun Also Rises.
Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris in the 1920’s and worked as a Foreign Correspondent for the Toronto Star. He used his journalism experience to write about fiction, but his stories in The Sun Also Rises are based on real events and real characters, specifically his fellow American and English expatriates (see image inset). The book portrays these characters traveling from Paris to Spain to watch the running of the bulls. He had intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but instead decided the week’s experiences he shared with his friends on vacation presented him with sufficient material to write a novel. He began writing his novel on his birthday 21st of July— 1925, and finished the draft manuscript two months later.
The dialogue below I found particularly shrewd, yet entertaining. Robert Cohn (who was dissected in last week’s excerpt by Hemingway’s alter ego Jake Barnes in the first few pages) is taken aback by the charm and beauty of Lady Brett Ashley. Cohn begins probing the protagonist Jake Barnes to know the ins and outs of this ‘Lady’ he has fallen for. The tension between them is palpable because Lady Ashley had just earlier told Jake she loves him, but they both know that they have no chance at a stable relationship.
“What do you know about Lady Brett Ashley, Jake?”
“Her name’s Lady Ashley. Brett’s her own name. She’s a nice girl,” I said. “She’s getting a divorce and she’s going to marry Mike Campbell. He’s over in Scotland now. Why?”
“She’s a remarkably attractive woman.”
“There’s a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight.”
“She’s very nice.”
“I don’t know how to describe the quality,” Cohn said. “I suppose it’s breeding.”
“You sound as though you liked her pretty well.”
“I do. I shouldn’t wonder if I were in love with her.”
“She’s a drunk,” I said. “She’s in love with Mike Campbell, and she’s going to marry him. He’s going to be rich as hell some day.”
“I don’t believe she’ll ever marry him.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t believe it. Have you known her a long time?”
“Yes,” I said. “She was a V. A. D. in a hospital I was in during the war.”
“She must have been just a kid then.”
“She’s thirty-four now.”
“When did she marry Ashley?”
“During the war. Her own true love had just kicked off with the dysentery.”
“You talk sort of bitter.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to give you the facts.”
“I don’t believe she would marry anybody she didn’t love.”
“Well,” I said. “She’s done it twice.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Well,” I said, “don’t ask me a lot of fool questions if you don’t like the answers.”
“I didn’t ask you that.”
“You asked me what I knew about Brett Ashley.”
“I didn’t ask you to insult her.”
“Oh, go to hell.”
He stood up from the table his face white, and stood there white and angry behind the little plates of hors d’oeuvres.
“Sit down,” I said. “Don’t be a fool.”
“You’ve got to take that back.”
“Oh, cut out the prep-school stuff.”
“Take it back.”
“Sure. Anything. I never heard of Brett Ashley. How’s that?
“No. Not that. About me going to hell.”
“Oh, don’t go to hell,” I said. “Stick around. We’re just starting lunch.”
Cohn smiled again and sat down. He seemed glad to sit down. What the hell would he have done if he hadn’t sat down? “You say such damned insulting things, Jake.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve got a nasty tongue. I never mean it when I say nasty things.”
“I know it,” Cohn said. “You’re really about the best friend I have, Jake.”
God help you, I thought. “Forget what I said,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. It’s fine. I was just sore for a minute.”
“Good. Let’s get something else to eat.”
After we finished the lunch we walked up to the Café de la Paix and had coffee. I could feel Cohn wanted to bring up Brett again, but I held him off it.