Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book #29: The Art of Impotence

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  -Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Time to buckle down.  My heart still aflutter from the good news of last week, it was time to make headway on finishing chapter seven of my literary memoir.  This chapter focuses on The Sun Also Rises, which was an important novel for me and my dad to read together.  There's something strangely alluring about Jake Barnes' impotence, and I found myself remembering and reflecting on a conversation we had on this topic. 

"You really feel Jake's suffering," Daddy said.  "But he never seems wimpy or unmanly.  I like the guy."

Injured in the First World War, Jake has lost his balls, so to speak, but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with him. I smiled. Daddy was becoming more observant about the text, ever since he took up reading as his new retirement hobby and asked me - his languishing English professor daughter - to put together a reading list.

I had to admit that I liked Jake, too. What is it about Jake Barnes that makes him so likable even though the guy’s a prick? He’s mean to friends who annoy him for being suck-ups, like Robert Cohn, but he’s loyal to a fault to other friends, like Brett Ashley, who walks all over him. Throughout it all, Jake affects an air of solitary cool; he seems the perfect lone ranger. At night, however, his true feelings come out.

After an evening of heavy drinking with his friends at all the hotspots in Paris, he comes home to an empty flat, piss drunk and alone. The waves of loneliness wash over him and the reality of his impotence comes crashing down. Although he tries to find the humour in it, the joke only goes so far and he breaks down in tears. Brett drops by early in the morning and through the haze of sleep, he mistakes her as a prostitute. So it’s fair to say that he doesn’t trust her, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Brett’s demand for intimacy is tantalizing torture.

“What do you think of Jake and Brett’s relationship?” I asked Daddy.

“It’s painful to watch them together,” he said. “Yet they’re clearly so much in love.”

I could remember people saying the same thing about me and Josh, my old boyfriend from undergrad days. All our breakups and tearful reconciliations left our friends and families perplexed.

As I thought back, it occurred to me that perhaps this is the beautiful thing about Jake's impotence.  It allows us as readers to relive that turbulent, thrilling, adolescent feeling of being in love with someone with whom you just can't get it together.  The dynamics of desire and despair take on a life of their own.  Haven't we all been in that excruciating position before? 

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

Timing seems to be the key in whether a relationship works. The right person at the wrong time can be heart breaking. Recently my sister's friend reconnected by email with her first boyfriend from high school. Both had married and divorced. They fell in love all over again after more than 40 years and got married in a big tent!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

How wonderful.... Her life truly came full circle!

Hester Prine said...

Why is there a drawing of Raymond Burr on this cover?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

You're right that the actor on the cover bears an uncanny resemblance to Raymond Burr.... Strange. The only film adaptation I've seen is the 1957 version that starred Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner. Not a great movie, though the bullfighting scenes have a certain flare.

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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.