In the summer of 1925, 25-year-old Ernest and a group of rowdy companions traveled to Pamplona, Spain, for the infamous running of the bulls. The center of attention was a femme fatale British aristocrat who brought out the worst in everyone around her. All the men were in love with her, and two had slept with her. Fueled by excessive drinking, the holiday quickly turned into a spectacle of sexual rivalry, beastly hangovers and insulting language.
It was exactly the kind of material Hemingway needed for his groundbreaking novel, “The Sun Also Rises.”
“The moment he and (wife) Hadley left Pamplona ... he began transcribing the whole spectacle on paper, writing almost in a fever trance,” Lesley Blume writes in “Everybody Behaves Badly.” “Suddenly every illicit exchange, insult, and bit of unrequited longing that had broken out during the fiesta had a serious literary currency.”
When “The Sun Also Rises” was published the next year, Hemingway’s former drinking companions were horrified. They soon discovered that he had put them all in the novel, and that “vast swaths of their personal backgrounds — messy divorces, money problems and sexual predilections — had been blatantly used,” Bloom writes. The characters were given pseudonyms, but they knew exactly who they were, and some were deeply scarred by the novel.
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The New York Times, however, exulted Hemingway’s “lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.” The Herald Tribune pronounced him “in many respects the most exciting of contemporary American writers.” The Boston Evening Transcript, the most conservative newspaper in the country, called the book a “beautiful and searching novel.”
Even the least enthusiastic reviewers conceded that “The Sun Also Rises” represented a stylistic tour de force.
Blume, a Los Angeles writer and journalist, has tracked down old letters, interviews, essays and long-out-of-print memoirs to write a fascinating, up-close look at how Hemingway kicked off his spectacular career. She also found and interviewed descendants of the Hemingway friends who became characters in “The Sun Also Rises.” In “Everybody Behaves Badly,” she tells the story of how Hemingway became a literary star in his mid-20s, and all the famous people he met along the way.
Hemingway was only 22 years old when he arrived in Paris in 1921 with his new wife, Hadley, determined to be a great writer, Blume writes. Paris was a magnet for creative types from all over America in the ’20s, and the Hemingways were lucky to have Hadley’s trust fund to pay the bills. Hemingway also had scored a job as a Paris-based correspondent for the Toronto Sun, which would take him all over Europe and feature prominently in his stories.
A young man with a strong work ethic and obvious talent, he had another quality not often associated with writers.
“He was undeniably charismatic,” Blume writes. “He was gregarious, smart, and great-looking, and therefore a social prize. Because he was so opinionated, he drew the less assured like moths to a flame.”
What inspired Hemingway to write “The Sun Also Rises” is only part of the story Blume tells in her compulsively readable book. She also writes about his off-and-on friendships with authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson, among others; about his experiments with writing satire and how “he was becoming quite adept at co-opting lives and vulnerabilities of others as grist for his literary mill”; about how his writing caught the attention of famed editor Maxwell Perkins, who would convince his genteel, old-fashioned publishing company, Charles Scribner’s Sons, to publish Hemingway’s first novel; about Dorothy Parker, the queen bee of New York’s Algonquin Round Table, who adored Hemingway and found in him a kindred spirit; and about how Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley fell apart when he started an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a friend in Paris who would become his second wife (there would be two more in later years).
The eight pages of photos alone are worth the price of the book. There’s one of Hemingway and Hadley on their wedding day on Sept. 3, 1921, in formal attire and surrounded by family; another is Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo, in which he stares straight into the camera looking movie-star handsome.
There also are photos of Parker, Perkins, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, plus individual pictures of the rowdy group of friends who had attended the 1925 fiesta. The most provocative photo is a shot of the whole group, including the beguiling, fashionable lady who would become Lady Brett Ashley, the femme fatale in “The Sun Also Rises.” That’s also the photo that inspired Blume to write “Everybody Behaves Badly,” and it appears on the book’s cover.
Everybody knows how Hemingway’s story ends. Before struggling with depression and killing himself with a shotgun on July 2, 1961, he would write many more books and short stories and win both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Widely called the father of modern literature, he has been read in dozens of languages around the globe and still commands headlines and crops up in gossip columns.
Blume wanted to publish her book this year because 2016 marks the 90th anniversary of the release of “The Sun Also Rises.” In an epilogue summarizing what happened to the characters in that novel, she notes that several never forgave Hemingway for writing about them, claiming he caused them great pain and suffering.
But if Hemingway had any remorse, he appears to have kept it to himself, Blume concludes. Asked years later whether, if he had it to do over, he would have been “softer” on the characters, he had a quick response: “Oh, hell, no.”
Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.