How the expatriate ‘experience’ has come under pressure, fluctuated and updated from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station
Hemingway’s Paris of the ‘roaring twenties’ as it is presented in The Sun Also Rises follows a group of expatriates indulging in excess and pursuit of experience: loose and heavy spending, partying and a lot of alcohol. A ‘lost generation’, reeling from the shattering of pre-war ideals and values, most of them are veterans or in some way directly connected to the war. It paints a lifestyle of an expatriate that is flashy, glamorous, yet somehow empty. The novel’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, is a man’s man, yet ‘un-manned’ by the war and terribly in love with fellow expatriate Lady Ashley. Ben Lerner’s 21st century addition to the American expatriate genre seems initially far removed from The Sun and not just as a result of the 90 odd years separating Madrid of 2004 from 1920s Paris. Adam Gordon, fraudulent protagonist of Leaving the Atocha Station, is disillusioned with art, poetry and authenticity in general. His scholarship to Madrid has included little actual research: his time is marked by consuming alcohol, mounds of hash and attending occasional meaningless party and generally failing to accumulate experience. Yet these two expatriate experiences are in discourse with one another through several key concerns of the genre: the drive for experience, the dangers of Europe, the competence of the American expatriate and the unobtainable. These various themes place these two texts in a conversation over what it means to be an American expatriate, and how that experience has changed or updated from Hemingway’s Spain and Paris to Lerner’s Madrid – particularly that expatriate identity even still exists.
The expatriates of Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s embody what Gertrude Stein dubbed the ‘lost generation’, mentally haunted and overcast by the implications of their service during, and experience of, the First World War. For virtually all male veteran characters of the book (and they are a majority: Count Mippipopolous, Barnes, Campbell, Gorton, Wilson-Harris etc.), the First World War has utterly demolished pre-war ideals and values. Barnes’ war wound has left him impotent, the main obstacle to a relationship with the love of his life, Lady Ashley. Despite the fact direct reference to the war is not frequent, this novel is undeniably haunted by its presence at almost every step. Jake’s mind, consciously or otherwise, wanders back to key flashpoints of the war, such as in the places he suggests for walking trips over coffee in “Café Versailles”: “somewhere or other in Alsace”, “Bruges”, “Ardennes”, etc. which offer echoes of the initial stages of the war (The Sun 5). Hemingway asserts “terrain is what remains in the dreaming part of your mind” and it is clear that for Barnes the war has become the unmoveable terrain of his mind – so much so that it invades his leisure time either through morbid curiosity or unconscious drives to revisit battlegrounds (Across The River 92). Some critics, such as William Adair, have speculated that Jake’s desire to go walking in these specific locales are part of an engagement in the “thriving post-World War I travel industry” adding another layer to the expatriate identity: war tourist (Adair 128). Yet beyond the subtle nods to key geographical sites, the war seems to overshadow the novel in many other ways: such as in the violence that is a recurring fixture of the plot. From the novel’s open, outlining Cohn’s fighting career that culminates in the title of “boxing champion at Princeton”; to the violent bouts between the male characters over Ashley; the goring and general danger of the bullfighting that dominates the latter stages of the novel etc. (3). This violence that seems to follow these characters, I would argue, occurs due to their seeking it as a way of coping with the echoes of war trauma. War, and violence, constitute the terrain of their minds, and thus it becomes a manifest reality of their lives. Many of the characters seem drawn to each other simply due to the fact they are veterans; such as the Englishman “named Harris” that Gorton and Barnes grow affectionate of in while fishing in the mountains. Gorton seemingly explains that attachment in the fact “he was in the war, too” (117). One can also argue the ease at which Mike Campbell, despite being yet another foreign love rival for Ashley’s affection, fits into their circle without much difficulty is due to his being a “distinguished soldier” (117). The war thus reworks the minds of virtually all veterans and the bodies too, and its presence by its omission is undeniable – becoming mental terrain of the 1920s expatriate experience.
In the face of this immovable war terrain of the mind, the expatriates of the novel seek to escape it through mundane activities such as walking – to achieve some kind of ‘real’ banal experience to combat war trauma. This seeking of experience is notably not unlike the touristic drive for a ‘genuine’ experience of another country. Michel de Certeau asserts: “walking is missing a sense of place, it is the indefinite process of being absent and looking for oneself” (Cochoy 48). To be missing or establishing a sense of place is arguably one of the core concerns or tenants of expatriate writing, examining a sense of belonging in between national identity constructs. Yet this walking specifically appears often in The Sun, and Nathalie Cochoy argues that it becomes a “physical expression of some intimate suffering and the salutary continuity of ordinary rituals” (48). As a result “Hemingway’s characters keep coming and going”, remaining in a state constant motion perhaps to avoid the stagnancy that might recalls the deadlocked horror of trench warfare (48). This “motif of urban walking” functions as “a means of tracing ground between emergence of unnameable torments and the soothing presence of the most insignificant events of life” (48). The fact of their expatriate identity is therefore significant, as urban walking in foreign spaces becomes a kind of re-enchantment of the everyday – the mundane goings-on of a city, specifically a foreign city, become a site for the wonder of civilian life that can counter war trauma. War trauma that I would argue has blunted the characters, and as a result, “Hemingway is willing to recognize no values save those which can be immediately felt and pointed out” (Levin 73). His writing style becomes obsessed with immediacy of sensation, concerned with what is most obviously present, and less so with what isn’t – at least in terms of what is represented. For the expatriates such as Barnes who have “lost touch with the [home] soil”, “walking appears as a means of recreating some essential way of feeling” (The Sun 100 Cochoy 49). Capturing this sense of true feeling becomes a way of combating the bluntness of trauma, and Count Mippipopolous, veteran of multiple wars, surmises this strategy well “it is because I have lived very much that now I can enjoy everything so well” (53). The mundane becomes nirvana in comparison to memories of battle. The brutal, senseless reality of war and the trauma it inflicts on the minds of veterans opens a dichotomy of experience with the mundane activities of civilian life, as observable through expatriate urban walking, to re-capture a sense of feeling and emotion.
However, the comparable struggle for 21st century expatriate Adam Gordon in Atocha Station is that he has no struggle – no catastrophic event has caused him to become lost – yet what is concerning is that he is lost all the same. In the broad moves of expatriate writing Europe comes to hold potential dangers to expatriate Americans – be it temptation, excess, un-fulfilment, and even death. There is an expectation of some kind of negative event to occur, that shows the expatriate the folly of attempting to exist abroad, and finally acts as a catalyst for bringing them ‘home’ to America. Yet at the open of Atocha Station the expatriate lead we receive is just as lost, disillusioned, aimless as The Sun ’s expatriates – without an event such as the war to easily explain it. In a way of trying perhaps to understand his, as he would suggest, listless, fraudulent existence, Gordon seeks to continually birth some kind of horrific catastrophe for himself. To achieve such a ‘real’ experience, Gordon first kills his mother, relating that she “died” to a new female acquaintance at a party in a convoluted attempt to present authenticity of character (Lerner 28). Perhaps this is as believable, or just as laughable, as the idea that Hemingway’s Barnes can validate his own authenticity through his acceptance among Spanish bullfighting aficionados. Yet it is certainly interesting that to validate one’s authenticity in the 21st century, the death of a family member is the only believable catastrophe that could occur in the life of a young, privileged white American expatriate. He then proceeds to embroider his ‘troubled’ upbringing with the truth of his “fascist” father, presumably consciously or unconsciously (though the former seems more likely) drawing on Spain’s fascist past to hijack another nation’s war (61). These lies of course turn out to be outrageously untrue, his mother is alive and well, and his father is a kind man who cares a great deal for him: they are both perfect parents, which is somehow the problem for Gordon. His touristic drive for experience pushes him to experience some kind of ‘real’ tragedy that can validate him as an expatriate.
Elsewhere, another of Gordon’s ‘brushes’ with catastrophe comes through a story related to him by a friend, through instant messenger. He states that their witnessing of a girl drowning constitutes a “real experience”, and interestingly the emerging logic of the book seems to be that the only ‘real’ thing that can happen is a situation involving death (77). Gordon of course appropriates their terrible ordeal as his own later on in the book, relating to Isabel how he and his ‘girlfriend’ “took her body to a place with phones…An old woman gave us limes” (96). He lifts key facts of the narrative as it is told to relay it back as his own – and at this point in the novel this fraudulence is almost expected. Seemingly the only thing truly capable of shaking a post WW2 21st century audience is witnessing death in person. That somehow experiencing a horrific event, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for many Americans, was perhaps ‘unreal’ due to their receiving it through a television screen, computer, or radio. It in many ways recalls The Sun’s Gorton decrying the expatriates losing “touch with the soil”, that what is truly lost by the expatriate experience is the proximity to call something your own, ‘true experience’ (100). Thus, the suggestion becomes that the expatriate seems to be inherently fraudulent or inauthentic through his disconnection from the happenings of his home country – coupled perhaps with his inability to become one with the ‘new soil’.