This was my second time reading this book. I read it many years ago as a teenager and remembered very little about the book. In fact, the only thing that I remembered was that it had something to do with bull fighting.
The first thing that I noticed while reading this book was Hemingway’s writing style, particularly the dialogs. For me, this is Hemingway’s strong point as a writer, the way he uses dialog to drive a story and makes that dialog appear fluid and believable. I had the impression I was reading an extended version of “Hills Like White Elephants,” where I had to figure out the parts of the story that were intentionally omitted from the discussions amongst the characters.
The aspect of the story, though, that really struck me was the antisemitism, generally directed toward Robert Cohn but occasionally toward Jews in general. Because Hemingway was such a masterful wordsmith, I couldn’t figure out whether he was expressing his feelings about Jews or just trying to accurately portray the anti-Jewish sentiment of that time. Regardless, as a modern reader, I found it unsettling, particularly since the tale was set in 1920’s Europe just prior to the rise of Nazism.
The passage that best expresses the antisemitic mentality of the characters is one in which Mike expresses his feelings about Cohn having sex with Brett: “No, listen, Jake. Brett’s gone off with men. But they weren’t ever Jews and they didn’t come and hang around afterwards.” (p. 108) So although Brett is depicted as an “easy” woman who has had many amorous relationships, that does not seem to bother anyone, except when one of those relationships is with a Jew. For some reason, that is crossing a moral line in what is socially acceptable.
Ultimately, this is a very well-written book that earns its place among the “classics” of literature, if for no other reasons than the excellent use of dialog to drive the story and the vivid depictions of Europe in the 1920’s.