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'Everybody Behaves Badly': The Backstory To 'The Sun Also Rises'


Earnest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" has never been out of print since it was published in 1926 and is universally acclaimed a masterpiece. A few Americans and British ex-pats take a trip to Spain to see the bullfights. They spend the road trip getting drunk, seeing pointless gore, sleeping with and turning on each other to become symbols of what Hemingway's friend Gertrude Stein christened the lost generation that found no meaning in life after the mass losses of World War I.

It's the novel that made Ernest Hemingway a huge literary force, admired, mocked and imitated to this day. But the characters he brought to life were already alive - people close to Hemingway who made that trip to Spain just the year before. Lesley M. M. Blume, a contributor to Vanity Fair, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal, has written the story of the actual trip that led to the literary one - "Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises." Lesley M. M. Blume joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks so much being with us.

LESLEY BLUME: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: The book began in your mind with a picture.

BLUME: Yes. A few years ago, I saw a picture of Hemingway with an entourage of attractive and rather mischievous looking people sitting around a cafe table in Pamplona in 1925. And the woman sitting next to Hemingway had a very beguiling look about her. She was lank. She was coquettish. And I was immediately drawn her, and apparently half of Paris was drawn to her at one point, also.


BLUME: I investigated a little bit, and it turns out her name was Lady Duff Twysden. And she was a dissolute but sublime creature who was over in Paris, waiting out a divorce from her aristocratic husband. And she turned out to be the real-life inspiration behind Lady Brett Ashley, and I wanted to learn more.

SIMON: So - all right - we've identified Lady Brett Ashley. (Laughter) Let's not delay at least a few of the others. Robert Cohn - I'll refer to him as the Jewish character...


SIMON: ...'Cause his presence in the book becomes a kind of litmus test. People who constantly point out that he's Jewish often turn out to be hateful about something. Robert Cohn was really...

BLUME: ...Was really Harold Loeb, who had been Hemingway's tennis friend. Amusingly, they used to play tennis in a part of Paris that was, quote, "close to the guillotine," as Harold Loeb required. And for me, that always seemed like a little bit of foreshadowing, considering what Hemingway was about to do to Loeb on paper.

So at first, they started out as friends, and Loeb was worshipful of Hemingway - I mean, just completely adored him, even though there were tensions between the two. Hemingway had no money. He wasn't college-educated. Loeb had every advantage. He was unbelievably wealthy, Princeton educated. He was in bed with gorgeous women.

But things take a turn for the worse when Harold Loeb lands the affections, shall we say, of Lady Duff Twysden. And by that time Hemingway had apparently become quite interested in her romantically and otherwise. And it led to an inevitable showdown, which almost resulted in a fist fight at one point, but ultimately really played out on the pages of "The Sun Also Rises."

SIMON: Jake Barnes, the novel's protagonist - I would say that he was clearly Hemingway's inspired view of himself, except, of course, Jake Barnes suffered from perhaps the most famous emasculating war injury in literary history.

BLUME: (Laughter) The decision to make Jake Barnes impotent was a fascinating one because everybody at the time knew that Hemingway himself had had quite a serious wound. He had something like 227 pieces of shrapnel shot into his legs. And his area was nicked, but he didn't lose anything in the way that Jake Barnes, the character, did. But it gave Hemingway the idea to make Jake Barnes impotent, and what that does is it actually makes Jake a perfect observer. He literally cannot participate.

And interestingly, because Hemingway's own wounds were so famous - I mean, they were covered even in newspapers back in the States, even though he had no claim to fame at that point - was that naturally people were going to assume that Hemingway was referring his own personal circumstances and make inferences. And so for somebody who became so known as hypermasculine icon to lay himself vulnerable to the assumption that he himself may be impotent was quite noble, in a way. I mean, he was willing to make, you know, astounding personal sacrifices in the service of the narrative.

SIMON: I don't want to make "The Sun Also Rises," you know, sound just like an extended People magazine article. We are talking about one of the great novels in the English language. And what made it such a breakthrough when it appeared?

BLUME: There was a real danger that "The Sun Also Rises" could have just been seen as a naughty roman a clef coming out of Paris. I mean, at that time, you know, all of the ex-pats were writing about each other, and they all were up to terrible behavior. And what Hemingway did in "The Sun Also Rises" is he elevated all of that bad behavior and gossip into high literature. And with this material, he created the first work of commercially successful modern literature.

He said at one point to one of his editors, my work can be enjoyed on so many different levels. He said you don't even need a high school education to read his book - he pointed out. But he added, also, that his revolutionary, new, modern style would titillate the highbrow critics. And then for people who didn't even care about stylistic revolution, there was - he wrote "a lot of dope about high society in the book, and that's always interesting," end quote. Scribner's, his publisher, and Hemingway - they knew that they had something for everybody. And how rare is that, then or now?

SIMON: Is there any reason why reading your book and knowing the real-life characters from whom the characters of "The Sun Also Rises" are derived should decrease anybody's enjoyment of or esteem for the novel?

BLUME: Oh, heavens, no. I mean, I personally found the backstory - I mean, it completely enhanced the significance. It's probably one of the best sensory documents that we have that really gives us a sense of what it was like to be an ex-pat in the ex-pat colony in 1920s Paris. And knowing that there is a completely true backstory behind it only, in my opinion, adds to its allure.

SIMON: Lesley M. M. Blume - her book "Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises." Thanks so much for being with us.

BLUME: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.