Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Sun Also Sets

"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."
"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so."

Maybe someone's already beat me to it*, but I think Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011) is our generation's The Sun Also Rises, which means, I guess, that I'm predicting Ben Lerner will win the Nobel Prize after he writes a few, you know, "major" novels to follow up on this first one. Lerner is a bit older than Hemingway was in 1926, but the action of Lerner's novel is set in 2004, when Lerner was 25, which means Jake Barnes and Adam Gordon are roughly the same age. Also, Barnes is impotent because of a vaguely described injury from the war. Gordon is not injured and impotent but bipolar and medicated and, in some sense at least, "incapable". Both are young Americans in Europe, embarked, arguably, on what Norman Mailer described as a "drunken furlough from the ordering disciplines of church, F.B.I., and war". Both are having a difficult time being "in love" under the current conditions (on the surface, each in their characteristically aloof ways).

Both novels are near-perfectly written. You can even, I think, trace a kind of "arc" from The Sun Also Rises to Leaving the Atocha Station through both American literature and Imperial Grand Strategy, if you will. But I'll leave that sweeping gesture at the sweep of its gesture.

Hemingway on his younger days in Paris:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (Death in the Afternoon, p. 10)

I'm probably not the only one who sees in this description of the relationship between "motion and fact" and "the emotion you experience" the influence of T.S. Eliot's famous analysis of Hamlet; it's an account of what Eliot called "the objective correlative". Like so many others, I always found his critique of the play unconvincing, precisely because it seemed to me that play was about a man who had lost an objective correlative. The "difficulty" Hemingway describes had reached a limit, and this is of course also why young men, perhaps spending a year abroad to feel it more fully, can so easily identify with Hamlet. I should note here that when he ran for mayor of New York in 1969 Mailer announced that the people of the city had lost their objective correlative, duly citing T.S. Eliot.

Adam Gordon is a man who is working the most tenuous connections between what he feels and any given sequence of motion and fact. He's a poet.


*Update: Indeed, someone has beaten me to the comparison: see J.A. Tyler's review at the Rumpus.


Andrew Shields said...

It is definitely a good one. Have you read his three books of poems? An intriguing poet.

May I recommend another novel by a poet from last year? Mark Wallace's "The Quarry and the Lot." As good as Lerner! And way better than the Jonathans and Jeffreys.

(And there's also Amit Majmudar's fabulous "Partitions," for another recent novel by a poet, but not one that is about what it is to be a poet in the world, as Lerner's and Wallace's books are.)

Thomas said...

Yes, wonderful poems! And LtAS is very much a key into the mood of those poems (I've been calling it anti-Palinurian. Kate Greenstreet and Tony Tost also write in that mood. It's a good mood. It makes you feel better.)

Hemingway, BTW, also published a handful of poems in the 1920s.