It takes a man with hair on his chest to drink five Absinthe and Champagne Cocktails and still handle the English language in the Hemingway fashion…After six of these cocktails The Sun Also Rises.
Pour 1 jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink 3 to 5 of these slowly.
– from So Red the Nose
Did I say that The Canary Case cocktails were strong? What a naïve drinker I was in those days. Sorry Van Dine, but Hemingway can outdrink you in this century just as well as the last. Shamefully, I had to skip the “3 to 5” instruction, unless he meant these directions to take place over a week’s time.
The story of absinthe — AKA the Green Fairy — is a long and interesting one that I encourage you to Google. This inspiration to countless artistic types was, in fact, only legalized in the United States less than 10 years ago.
However, like the first report of Mark Twain’s death, absinthe’s effects have been greatly exaggerated. I can say from experience that a normal amount causes no hallucinations or visions. Disappointingly. Whether or not it inspires artistic genius, you can tell me after you’ve read this post.
I was more befuddled by Hemingway connecting this liquor with this particular book than its high alcohol percentage, however. Absinthe originated in Switzerland, and was popularized in France, while the topic of Death in the Afternoon is the Spanish-iest of Spanish sports. And champagne, of course, is also extremely, unequivocally French. The only connection I can see is that Hemingway, according to his own account, drank a fair bit of absinthe while in Spain — once even to give him courage to face the toros himself.
So, historical and cultural context aside, are Death in the Afternoon cocktails worth a taste? Champagne, everybody likes, but absinthe is truly the defining flavor of this drink. It is, to be honest, an acquired taste, but one that I personally think is worth acquiring.
Nevertheless, I don’t believe that gaining an affection for absinthe is always possible for one reason: the strongest flavor is anise, also prominent in (dun dun DUN): black jelly beans, the world’s most controversial candy. Drink absinthe during the afternoon and you will sleep with the taste of black jelly beans on your tongue. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, no number of anecdotes about Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, or Vincent Van Gogh will convince you to give it a try.
PERSONAL STORY TIME: Although I am an English teacher, my undergrad major was actually in Spanish, and I love, adore, revere everything to do with Spain. I love flamenco, both dance and music. I love the buildings of Antoni Guadí and the paintings of Pablo Picasso. I l have never watched a Spanish movie that I didn’t like.
BUT there is one Spanish thing that I have never been able stomach: la corrida de toros — bullfighting.
And bullfighting just happens to be the topic of the 1932 book Death in the Afternoon, my first nonfiction book for this blog.
This is my first foray into Hemingway (the English teacher shame!) and if you too somehow missed The Sun Also Rises in high school, I don’t recommend that you follow my example. This book is essentially travel writing — really eloquent and well-written travel writing — but travel writing nonetheless. And travel writing isn’t particularly interesting unless you are actually planning an imminent trip to the destination. I had to read many, many pages of the best roadways to travel, the best times of years to go, and the best cities to view a show. All of which may or may not still be relevant 82 years later.
Hemingway does make an effort to address the issue that I — and apparently many 1930’s readers — have about bullfighting: animal cruelty. In the first chapter, he gives this concern a sort of “you either get it or your don’t” dismal, and Goodwins the argument a year before it would even have been historically possible to do so by stating that: “people who identify themselves with animals…are capable of greater cruelty to human beings than those who do not identify themselves readily with animals.”
Apparently not approving of the way bulls and horses are unnecessarily tortured and killed falls on the side of over-identifiying.
He only directly speaks to the animal rights concerns briefly, but his 278-page, detailed description of the event only served to reinforce why I despise this sport so much: it is not a fair “fight” at all. Every step of a legal, official bullfight is designed to give the toreador the upper-hand. Matadors only fight youngish bulls who have never fought before (so they won’t have learned any tactics). If the matador “loses” the bull is still killed that very day. The bull is not allowed any kind of retreat, and bullfighters are trained in chasing it out of his querencia (its literal, physical comfort zone).
This book even taught me new ways to hate bullfighting. I used to believe the job of the toreador’s posse was to (cruelly) provoke the bull in order to ensure a better fight. Actually, it turns out, they are simply there to weaken him, to make it easier for the toreador to finish him off.
HOWEVER, Hemingway’s passionate prose about the spectacle he so clearly loved convinced me that there is a sort of beauty and artistry in man’s struggle against beast. Unlike other depraved animal sports, such as cockfighting or bear baiting, I can admire the bravery it takes to actually step into the ring with such a fierce, strong adversary. And it clearly requires a great deal of showmanship to perform all the right moves while trying to escape death.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
Death in the Afternoon –– both the cocktail and the book — are one of a few from SRTN that aren’t really “forgotten.” The cocktail is actually still reasonably popular, and while the book is no A Farewell to Arms, I was easily able to find a copy from the nonfiction shelf at the library. So is the book worth adding to your classics shelf?
I hate to sound like a pleb or — God forbid — my students, but my reaction to this book can be summed up thusly: it was sooooo. booooooring. Of the four books I have blogged about so far, it is the first one that I really dreaded going back to each day, and I found every excuse to procrastinate reading it.
Hemingway himself acknowledges this in the book: “A technical explanation is hard reading. It is like the simple directions which accompany any mechanical toy and which are incomprehensible.”
Why yes, this book does have the same entertainment value as reading a set of assembly instructions. Half of this book is devoted to technicalities of the bullfight: foot placement, cape maneuvers, sword techniques. The other half reviews the faults and virtues of individual toreadors who are now long-dead. Lucky bastards.
To be fair, the event he is covering is pretty boring in and of itself. In accordance with the author’s assurances that I couldn’t understand it until I saw it, I watched a couple of the many corrida de toros videos available online. Despite the bloodthirsty nature of the event. it mostly reminded me of teasing my cat with his laser toy. If it lasted for an hour. And I stabbed him to death at the end.
Hemingway convinced me that I find bullfighting boring in the same way that many people find ballet or the opera boring — it’s rooted in a culture and traditions that I don’t really understand enough to appreciate. True though that may be, I did not particularly appreciate the several hours it took to come to that knowledge.
If you are extremely interested in bullfighting — like, maybe you are thinking of becoming a bullfighter yourself — you will find that this book is still considered an authoritative resource. Otherwise, the first chapter is the only one that holds any relevance or interest for those that are not true aficionados.
Death in the Afternoon will almost certainly be available at your local library. You can buy it here.
Next time: We take another animal-focused trip abroad with Frank Buck and his version of the Singapore Gin Sling in his efforts to Bring ‘Em Back Alive.