Lesley M.M. Blume’s look at Ernest Hemingway’s rise to literary prominence, “Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ ” is an essential book, not because it covers Hemingway’s seminal years in Paris and the writing of his breakthrough novel, but because it is so very well done. Blume, a reporter and cultural historian, combines the best aspects of critic, biographer and storyteller in this book, which should be on every serious Hemingway fan’s bookshelf.
The first third of the book skillfully sets up the story’s central conflict: Hemingway’s literary ambition and his need to write a novel to fulfill it. Blume provides necessary background on Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson and the couple’s early days in Paris. But in the remainder of the book, when Blume turns her attention to the genesis, writing, publication and fallout of “The Sun Also Rises,” the depths of her research and the heights of her storytelling ability become evident.
It’s a complicated story, told masterfully. Blume chronicles the Hemingways’ trip to the fiesta in Pamplona where, against a backdrop of drinking and bullfights, his rivalry with fellow writer Harold Loeb over Lady Duff Twysden provided the events that Hemingway thinly fictionalized to create “The Sun Also Rises.”
Blume then covers the novel’s writing and the sensation surrounding its publication, including Hemingway’s affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and the book’s effects on the lives of the friends he savaged between its covers. She includes insightful portraits of his relationships with literary luminaries of the day, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. Blume culls information and quotes from numerous sources and puts the results together with the skill of an accomplished novelist.
Blume’s writing and insights make “Everybody Behaves Badly” a standout look at Hemingway. At one point, she connects Hemingway’s writing and personal life in two sharp sentences; describing the Hemingways’ deteriorating marriage, Blume writes of Hadley: “Suddenly she was a problematic character in the fast-paced narrative of her husband’s life, one that would have to be fixed — or omitted. And Hemingway had already made other ruthless editorial cuts that summer.”
The last 100 pages become a page-turner as Blume weaves together multiple strands of the story — Hemingway’s talent, his affair with Pauline, his machinations to free himself from his first publisher to move to Scribner’s, the battle that editor Max Perkins waged to get Scribner’s to buy a novel regarded as perhaps too shocking to publish.
“Everybody Behaves Badly” is an excellent introduction to Hemingway for new fans and a must read for Hemingway aficionados. It provides the clearest picture yet written of this critical early period in Hemingway’s life.
John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010. He teaches at Normandale Community College and lives in St. Paul.
Everybody Behaves Badly
By: Lesley M.M. Blume.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 332 pages, $27.