'Everyone Behaves Badly' chronicles the rise of Ernest Hemingway

As Hemingway's fame built, so did the list of people he betrayed or alienated.

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece 'The Sun Also Rises' By Lesley M. M. Blume Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 392 pp.

An old saw tells authors to “write what you know,” a rule that’s thankfully breached by novelists who’ve never actually encountered a fire-breathing dragon or poisoned a dowager in the drawing room.

But sometimes what authors know is exactly what readers need: a slap of barely disguised reality, well remembered and well told, without the frills of excessive imagination. A roman à clef, literally a novel with a key, one that unlocks a door to real lives. And if it wrecks a few of those lives in the process, well, masterpieces don’t come cheap.

Wrecked lives? Ernest Hemingway, this one’s for you. To great effect, and a great cost, he perfected the art of burgling life stories by creating a legendary novel out of the true stories of his fellow travelers in the Lost Generation.

The origin story of “The Sun Also Rises,” as masterfully told by journalist Lesley M. M. Blume, reveals the complicated sides of the young Hemingway: brilliant and vicious, arrogant and ambitious, an obsequious charmer and a jerk of the highest order. Like his characters and those of frenemy F. Scott Fitzgerald, he’s also a man prone to destructive carelessness.

Blume, who’s written previously about literary icons and the culture of the past, brings the nearly forgotten Hemingway of the early 1920s to vivid life in Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises.’

The story of the always-hustling, sometimes-desperate Hemingway in Paris doesn’t fit into the narrative of his various better-known identities as hard-living, hard-loving, and hard-everything-else-ing. This was before he was famous, Blume writes, when Hemingway “played one of his earliest roles: unpublished nobody.”

In his aggressive quest for success, Hemingway schmoozes the literary lights of Paris and lives in poverty with his devoted wife and baby when her trust fund money disappears. He’d turn on his wife and many of these pals later, but not quite yet. For the moment, he needs them, and they like and love him. 

Early on, Hemingway writes a 183-word vignette about a bullfight; he’d never seen one. That would change. Soon he develops his famous lifestyle. He goes fishing, runs with the bulls, dines with the ex-pat swells who wash up on the Left Bank. And he listens with what his son would call a “rat-trap memory,” an image that appropriately evokes a piercing snap, snap, snap!

Then along comes “The Sun Also Rises” with characters and their backstories pilfered from the tumultuous and tortured lives of his friends. Even the soon-to-be-famous words “Lost Generation” are borrowed, with credit, from Gertrude Stein, who’d become yet another enemy with time. And the title itself comes from the Bible.

With wartime over, at least for the moment, the literary lights of 1920s Paris and Manhattan don’t yet fight for their lives or grand causes; their deadliest weapon is a well-timed wisecrack. As a result, this tale never crackles with the excitement and tragedy of Amanda Vaill’s masterful 2014 look at Hemingway & Co. in “Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.” 

Even so, “Everybody Behaves Badly” is deeply evocative and perceptive, and every page has a Hemingway-like ring of unvarnished truth. His reality is quite like the world of the novel, a place, Blume says, “where people aim to please themselves – even if their actions don’t bring them much pleasure.”

Blume gains invaluable insight by interviewing relatives and friends of the major players, including Hemingway’s onetime daughter-in-law. Letters and drafts are enlightening too. As his publishers cluck nervously, Hemingway excises a slightly naughty word or two, makes certain characters slightly harder match to real people (but not Jake Barnes, aka himself) and even improves upon the famous last sentence of “The Sun Also Rises.”

Saving readers from having to rush to Wikipedia, Blume helpfully provides an epilogue with updates about what happened to all of the real-life people who found themselves – without any warning – depicted in print. Several of his compatriots would be forever haunted by his callous and undisguised depictions of their lives. 

For some, their personal excesses – too many spouses, too little happiness, too many drinks – would linger beyond the 1920s. A few in the group wouldn’t make it to old age, including Hemingway. One of his ex-pals declared he needed to demolish the love of his friends and, in the end, found there was “no one left ... to obliterate but himself.”

What if these real people had all treated each other, and themselves, with a bit more kindness? Could Hemingway’s mind still have created the timeless likes of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley? 

Perhaps not. But to borrow a Hemingway phrase, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Everyone Behaves Badly' chronicles the rise of Ernest Hemingway
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today