by Matt J. Popham
“Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?”
It’s a fair question. One that, by all appearances, was not lost on Ernest Hemingway when he sat down to write Death in the Afternoon over four decades ago, but probably seems even more pertinent to contemporary readers. In these kinder, gentler times, the overwhelming majority of people probably view bullfights in much the same way they view dog fights or electoral primaries: as cruel atrocities whose spectators are little more than savages, and whose practitioners are nothing less than criminals. The prospect of reading about them seems only slightly less repugnant – and a good deal less captivating – than actually watching them. Those happy, amoral few unoffended by the practice would still likely wonder why an in-depth analysis – even one composed by one of the Western world’s foremost literary icons – would be of interest to anyone other than an avid enthusiast. If, in fact, any such enthusiasts still exist. It’s the 21st Century, after all… Even the Spanish are starting to have doubts! It’s one thing to discuss bullfighting as a literary device in The Sun Also Rises, but a non-fiction book that explores the traditions and techniques of the toreos…? Sounds about as culturally relevant as a Gutenberg press operations manual… All of which may account for Death in the Afternoon’s relative obscurity, today. (Of course, there is also the decline of the average reader’s level of intellectual inquiry to consider, but that’s another matter for another time…) Regardless, it would be both a literary injustice, and a disservice to the self, to dismiss Death in the Afternoon out-of-hand simply because of a few knee-jerk prejudices.
It is much more than a book about bullfighting.
Don’t get me wrong. It IS that. First and foremost. And it is beautifully that. But for Hemingway, bullfighting was not a sport. It was an art. His approach, therefore, is not that of a mere fan, but that of an aesthetic critic, theorist, and historian, whose knowledge of, and love for, his subject is palpable on every page. He was, of course, aware of the ethical debate, which was already in full swing when the book was published in 1931, but while he confronts the issue head-on, he wisely avoids any attempt at mounting a moral defense:
I suppose from a modern, moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this, I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by someone who lacks their, the readers’, fineness of feeling, I can only plead that this may be true.
But he also goes on to say that, “a serious book about such an unmoral subject may have some value,” and, from the first few pages, that value is self-evident. Leaving loftier judgments to his alleged betters, Hemingway concerns himself with bullfighting’s artistic qualities: its primal power, its show of athletic grace, and its expression of something profound and universal about bravery and death. Propelled by a professorial passion that enlivens even his most obsessive examinations of its mechanics and minutiae, he deciphers bullfighting’s language and symbolism, displaying a comprehensive understanding of its workings, and offering penetrating insights into its deeper meanings and larger significance, in the hopes of imparting to his readers an understanding of the confrontation’s cathartic impact and tragic weight. (It’s an uncomfortable concept for many in our modern culture, the fact that brutality does not negate artistry, and an unintentional, peripheral effect of the book is to leave the reader pondering our frequent struggles to reconcile the artistically admirable with the morally reprehensible…) While it’s unlikely that those already opposed and appalled will be converted to even a reserved appreciation, it’s impossible to come away without at least acknowledging that there is a great deal more style, skill, and substance involved than most people probably imagine. Regardless, Hemingway’s analysis has applications well beyond the bullring. Any intensive critical study of any art will unavoidably tap into fundamental concepts and core principles universal to all the arts, and probing and perceptive readers will find, in Hemingway’s deconstructions, an invaluable investigation, not just into bullfighting, but into the nature of artistry as a whole.
Not that Death in the Afternoon is, in any way, a dry, scholarly tome. A storyteller by nature, Hemingway frames and illustrates his conceptual explications, critical appraisals, and aesthetic appreciations with relevant and engaging narratives throughout. Many of these are anecdotal – recollections of personal experiences at bullfights – while others are stories of historic fights that have taken on a near-mythic quality over the years, evolving into something resembling folktales. Some of the best and most fascinating sections of the book are those in which Hemingway profiles bullfighting’s greatest legends – Belmonte, Maera, Joselito, El Gallo – any of whom were colorful and charismatic enough to have been characters in one of his stories or novels. His vivid portraiture reveals the ways in which their unique personalities and personal histories informed their individual techniques as matadors, and explores how their contributions shaped, for better or worse, the art and practice of bullfighting as a whole. Their tales of courage and cowardice, triumph and tragedy are presented with Hemingway’s signature literary flare and, regardless of one’s personal feelings about bullfighting, they are undeniably compelling.
Yet, as captivating as his stories are, as romantic and picturesque as his descriptions of Spain and each region’s cultural traditions, as impressive and enlightening as his bullfighting acumen may be, an uncharacteristic insecurity runs like a current through Death in the Afternoon’s twenty chapters. When it comes to bullfights, Hemingway knows his stuff, and he knows that he knows. In that, he is never less than confident and self-assured. But perhaps because Death in the Afternoon was his first foray into non-fiction, or perhaps because its controversial subject was so near and dear to his heart, there is a marked uncertainty in his approach, suggesting an (all things considered, not altogether baseless) worry that his readers will find the book dull. At every turn, the question, “Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?” seems to plague him. But, far from being a weakness, this novel anxiety (pun intended) actually serves as a font of inspiration, resulting in a number of inventive structural and stylistic choices, as Hemingway spontaneously alters his approach to his topic, or swerves away from it altogether, that only make Death in the Afternoon that much more enjoyable, entertaining, and rewarding to read. At one point, he conjures up an amusingly unimpressed elderly woman to serve as a chorus/reader surrogate, only to become increasingly annoyed with her underwhelmed needling; at another point, believing that fiction is all his readers will accept from him, he halts the book to offer a short story about the aftermath of a battle, which – because Hemingway was a real writer with an understanding of his craft – nonetheless maintains a strong thematic connection to his larger subject. Perhaps most invaluably, he frequently makes use of these tangents and digressions to discuss the art of writing and his own creative approach, generously doling out keen insights, considered advice, and withering critiques. Almost as many pages, in fact, are devoted to the craft of writing as bullfighting, making Death in the Afternoon the closest thing to a literary treatise Hemingway ever composed. Most pleasantly surprising, this curiously nervous approach imbues Hemingway’s authorial voice with an atypical, but affecting, warmth. The stark, hardened prose for which he is known softens here into an unadorned, forthright sincerity, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is as close as one can possibly get to the experience of actually conversing with him. There are moments of affability, playfulness, humility and even vulnerability, as his emotional investment in his subject, and his eagerness to share it, are presented largely without artifice, giving us startlingly clear glimpses of Hemingway the man, rather than Hemingway the author, and resulting in some of his most personal and revealing writing.
When the day comes that the practice of bullfighting finally disappears altogether from the cultural landscape, it seems unfortunately likely that Death in the Afternoon will disappear with it. As books on bullfighting go, it is certainly one of the best ever written, but its value far exceeds its relationship to its subject. A book of charmingly unpredictable formal eccentricity, it succeeds, by turns, as an aesthetic study, a chronicle of legends, a travelogue of Spain, a philosophical meditation, a creative writing workshop, and a psychological window into its author and his distinctive worldview. Yes, it is a book about bullfighting. But it is also a book about art, passion, creativity, courage, and death. In short, Death in the Afternoon is a book about life, and one of the most uniquely personal literary offerings from one of the world’s most renowned artists. Why the fuck would anyone NOT want to read that…?