SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Death in the Afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

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Photo by Joserra Lozano of Jose Maria Manzanares in Linares 28.08.13

(try telling me no one likes bullfighting anymore while looking at this!)

Welcome to the first in the series of Hemingway Tuesdays, where we work through Hemingway’s catalogue for those new to the man and his work. Today is the heavy classic Death in the Afternoon

Synopsis –

Still considered one of the best books ever written about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is an impassioned look at the sport by one of its true aficionados. It reflects Hemingway’s conviction that bullfighting was more than mere sport and reveals a rich source of inspiration for his art. The unrivaled drama of bullfighting, with its rigorous combination of athleticism and artistry, and its requisite display of grace under pressure, ignited Hemingway’s imagination. Here he describes and explains the technical aspects of this dangerous ritual and “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick”. Seen through his eyes, bullfighting becomes a richly choreographed ballet, with performers who range from awkward amateurs to masters of great elegance and cunning. A fascinating look at the history and grandeur of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is also a deeper contemplation of the nature of cowardice and bravery, sport and tragedy, and is enlivened throughout by Hemingway’s sharp commentary on life and literature.

If ever there was an author to take on bullfighting, it is Hemingway and his incredibly masculine style of writing. Beware, if you are new to Hemingway, this may not be the best book to start with; his style can take a little getting used to. If you have read The Sun Also Rises, you would already would know the man is possibly the greatest English writer on the subject of bullfighting. This book delves so deeply into the world of the corrida, that readers are only saved from the technical aspects of the art by the strong writing style. The fact that the book is 80 years old makes no difference; prepare to step to the barrier and see the art through the eyes of an expert.

It should be no surprise that Hemingway chose to write this work, as it serves to provide the backdrop to life’s most important element – life versus death. It also shows off Spain and its way of life, as it was 1931 (and also now to some degree). While many books  on Spain tend to talk of the people, the light, the food, the mysticism of the Iberian Peninsula, Hemingway does not do this; Spain isn’t held up as an idol. The author got the feeling that all of Spain could be seen in the bullring, the zest for life against the inevitable glory and defeat of death.

Many people call bullfighting a sport, but Hemingway correctly is firm in calling it an art, a decadent art. Hemingway goes as far to compare the greats of the time, like Belmonte and Joselito with other great Spanish artists such as Velasquez (though, these men all died differently. Velaquez died of illness, Belmonte committed suicide and Joselito died in the ring, so not all the comparisons worked out). Hemingway talks of the pose of the matador, the build of the bull, as if it were a work of art to be admired and studied. The book spares no details for readers, and doesn’t stop with giving readers simple answers and explanations, but digs into both the art and also the mind of those who produce the spectacles.

Hemingway is a true aficionado of bullfighting in every sense of the word. He certainly did his time at the barrier, understanding the feeling of the matador and the crowd. He laments that aficionados not want to see a great matador killed, but an average matador receives no such admiration. The way the bull is killed is under scrutiny from Hemingway as well. A matador can only be praised if he has killed the bull ‘honestly’ no easy or trick swipes with the sword can be taken. The matador must be so close, that when he trusts his sword into the bull, the final chance to be gored is there.

Bullfighting means death, and Hemingway tried to convey how Spaniards understand death better than other countries. A bull with always die in the ring. Even if the fight is a disaster, the animal will still be slaughtered. A matador will eventually die; surely his days are numbered, and he and the spectators alike are aware of this. Hemingway muses that it is better to die in the ring than to die old and forgotten, away from the spectacle and understanding of death and glory (something Belmonte said before he shot himself). Hemingway speaks of pride, which he said was often considered a sin, but it is pride that give a matador enjoyment in what he does in the ring. He waxes around how a matador feels Godlike in the ring, as they are dancing with death, attempting to argue its inevitably.

Anyone who has ever read Hemingway knows his style. It can be wistful and long-winded, or short and sharp, sometimes both on the same page. In this particular book, his hard style is not as energetic as other novels. If Hemingway’s writing is known for anything, it is three things – women, booze and sadness. He can ramble, he can jump around all over the place (as great minds tend to do). This book will not disappoint anyone, and you will feel like you’ve delved in the mind of Spain when you’ve finished this long but engaging book. Personally, action and conversation make a good book, and this book veers off course compared his other work, but anyone who wants to build knowledge of Hemingway must read this book. I must admit that my interest was held throughout Death in the Afternoon because of my passion for the subject matter, something that does not apply to everyone. 

Next week – For Whom the Bell Tolls, possibly one of the best novels ever written.

Want to recommend an author once we have finished Hemingway? Let me know.

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