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Death in the Afternoon

by Ernest Hemingway

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1,915226,990 (3.56)50
"Death in the afternoon" is Hemingway's classic work on the art of bullfighting. It tells of the bullfighters and the bulls, the bravery and cowardice, the pageantry and the history--enlivened by Hemingway's pungent comments on life and literature.

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English (17)  Dutch (2)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Oh, I was the BIGGEST Hemingway fan in high school. He is one of the major influences of my own development as a writer. ( )
  AngelaLam | Feb 8, 2022 |
This work has challenged a number of my views about life and death and culture and globalisation. Regardless of one's thoughts on the topic of the book, Hemingway's ability to weave dialogue and stories into a polemic while creating a historical document is almost classical. This book is rather like reading a history of the ancient events of The Colosseum written first-hand. The only difference with this book is the photographs. ( )
  madepercy | Nov 7, 2017 |
I went into Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon with perhaps the greatest scepticism I have ever felt towards a book. Whilst I am an earnest fan of Hemingway (see what I did there?), I have not read any of his work in some seven months or so, nor felt any desire to do so. I am also, like I imagine the vast majority of people today, opposed to the activity of bullfighting, finding it cruel and pointless. Even without this in mind, Death in the Afternoon seemed like a peculiar way to break my Hemingway fast: a highly-detailed treatise on a subject not really relevant to the modern world. Consequently, it was to my great surprise that I found much in this book to recommend.

Certainly, there are a number of negatives to this work. Hemingway, an aficionado of bullfighting in the 1930s, wrote this book to be an introduction to Spanish bullfighting and an attempt to explain that spectacle both emotionally and practically" (pg. 329). Whilst he does not claim to present a comprehensive or encyclopaedic book on the subject, it does provide more than just about anyone would ever want to know on the subject. Not content with providing a mere overview of the subject, Hemingway gets carried away at times in his detailing. On page 98, for example, he describes how bulls are branded, helpfully telling us that the branding irons, "bearing the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9" (who'd have thought it?) "have a wooden handle and the points that are in the fire are heated red hot." It seems at times like an exercise in stating the obvious. His pedantry is never reigned in; on page 27, for example, he describes the seating arrangements (right down to the numbering of chairs) in a bullfighting arena. For a writer so renowned for his clean, sparse prose (indeed, Death in the Afternoon contains, on page 165, the 'iceberg' quote that would lend its name to his writing style), the book is remarkably long-winded.

On the face of it, it may seem like an unappealing book. Hemingway must have intended it for a niche audience: bullfighting was never a phenomenon outside of Spain even at its peak, and quite early on in the book he says readers should go no further until they have actually witnessed a bullfight firsthand (probably not going to happen for most). Noting this and the fact that he mentions specific dates that are best to visit bullfights, and naming some of the best bull-breeders around (in 1932), one can be certain that Hemingway didn't mean for the book to stand the test of time, or to be admitted as part of his literary canon to be assessed by future generations in the way that he might reasonably have expected for The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms. Rather, he probably expected it to be handled more in line with his journalistic output. It is therefore a real sign of the author's talent that Death in the Afternoon stands up on literary merit and, of all of his books that I have read (it is my eighth), it is only behind those three just mentioned in my eyes.

This is not to say that I am now a convert to the merits of bullfighting; I am not. Nothing will ever convince me that harming and killing animals (not just bulls, but horses too) for reasons other than necessity (sustenance, etc.) will ever be morally right. Animal cruelty for the purposes of mere entertainment seems particularly distasteful. However, such is the quality and steadfastness of Hemingway's prose at times that I sincerely challenged my views on the subject. Hemingway is not an apologist of bullfighting; he is never defensive and writes about it in a neutral way - indeed, the first lines of the book are an admission that he expected to be horrified by the ordeal of his first bullfight. He is a considerate companion to the reader in this daunting journey into the world of Spanish bullfighting and, whilst my views on it are fundamentally unchanged, he certainly convinced me that there is more to bullfighting than is commonly represented. I won't really go into specifics on which aspects of the practice he challenged, for it would be cruel for a prospective reader to read 300 pages on bullfighting in Hemingway's book and yet more in my admittedly lengthy review.

Key to Hemingway's perspective on bullfighting is that, as he ably demonstrates, it is an 'art' rather than a sport. As he notes quite early on (pg. 14), the bull is certain to die, whereas no one would rightly enter a sporting encounter in which one competitor was guaranteed victory. Rather, bullfighting is a sort of performance art - closest perhaps to a tragedy in a theatre. Compellingly, bullfighting is "the only art in which the artist is in danger of death" (pg. 78) and Hemingway does induce within his reader a quite unexpected empathy with the much-maligned matador, with some graphic descriptions of gorings (or cornadas) from which some matadors take weeks to die in horrific and unrelenting agony. He also allows one to get a sense of the dignity and majesty of the fighting bull (did you know that the matador's sword has to be put between the shoulder blades of the bull as this is an area that the bull can defend against?), and any bullfighter who doesn't respect these creatures is likely to end up with a horn in the gut. Even though I still cannot abide by much of the practice, I have been convinced by Hemingway that the matadors and the spectators are not wholly motivated by bloodlust, though I do not believe it can ever be truly discounted as a factor. If art is truly the aim, there are ways for true artists to convey the tragedy and honour of death without actually causing it in a poor animal.

I should perhaps also mention that Death in the Afternoon is not solely about bullfighting, and Hemingway at points contemplates war, literature and the art of writing, among other subjects. Some of these passages are crudely shoehorned into codas at the end of dense chapters on bullfighting, almost as if the writer was consciously aware that a dense treatise on the subject was unlikely to sustain a reader for 300 pages. But however awkward their placement, these passages are still profoundly enjoyable. Perhaps also recognising the inherent lack of humour in the main subject matter, Hemingway makes a greater effort to lighten the burden on the reader. There are some delightful moments of humour buried deep in this book, particularly when Hemingway is bickering with his 'old lady' character (who is unfortunately and inexplicably dropped two-thirds of the way through). Indeed, in writing on a subject so close to his heart, Hemingway lowers his defences to a level he did not usually allow in his more polished and popular novels. Recognising that the book is perhaps a bit dry, he makes a greater effort to engage with the reader and we get a better sense of Hemingway the man than in any other of his works in which he presents to us Hemingway the writer. It's just a shame that some of his clearest and most consistently thought-provoking writing came in perhaps his most dated and uninfluential niche work." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
Go to Seville see a bullfight though it will surely be disappointing after watching "The moment of Truth" filmed by Francesco Rossi.
  Artymedon | Mar 26, 2013 |
I wasn't really sure what to expect when I picked this up, but I thought if I were to read about bullfighting, Hemingway might be a good choice as a guide. I had no idea it would be so detailed.

I feel like I came away from it understanding the structure of a bullfight, the environment, the emotion. I was fascinated by his descriptions of proper killing, the work of the picadores and banderilleros (who I didn't even know existed before), and all the moves that a matador may perform, properly or improperly. Perhaps the most interesting part was Hemingway's recurring theme of the bravery of the bull. It's easy for an outsider to think of the matador as brave (or crazy), but one rarely considers the idea of a brave bull and how that bravery can raise the level of a bullfight to sheer brilliance if properly used by the matador.

Also, you get a glimpse of Spain and its people through his writing, which I also enjoyed immensely. And finally, some of it was quite funny, as my boyfriend can attest because I kept reading passages out loud to him. ( )
  ursula | Jan 12, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
"Bull-fighting, one infers, became a hobby with Mr. Hemingway because of the light it throws on Spain, on human nature and on life and death . . . . Action and conversation, as the author himself suggests, are his best weapons. To the degree that he dilutes them with philosophy and exposition he weakens himself."
added by GYKM | editNew York Times, R. L. Duffus (Sep 25, 1932)

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ernest Hemingwayprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fiore, Peter M.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hsu, TimothyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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to Pauline
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At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses.
I believe, after experience and observation, that those people who identify themselves with animals, that is, the almost professional lovers of dogs, and other beasts, are capable of greater cruelty to human beings than those who do not identify themselves readily with animals.
The matador, from living every day with death, becomes very detached, the measure of his detachment of course is the measure of his imagination and always on the days of the fight and finally during the whole end of the season, there is a detached something in their minds that you can almost see. What is there is death and you cannot deal in it each day and know each day there is a chance of receiving it without having it make a very plain mark. It makes this mark on every one.
There is sometimes a long time between great ones and those that have known the former great ones rarely recognise the new ones when they come.
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"Death in the afternoon" is Hemingway's classic work on the art of bullfighting. It tells of the bullfighters and the bulls, the bravery and cowardice, the pageantry and the history--enlivened by Hemingway's pungent comments on life and literature.

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