Book Review: A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Hemingwayby Ernest Hemingway
Review by Brian Wright

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a new book, so I thought I’d break the ice with an old one—by the literary icon Ernest Hemingway. I remember reading Old Man and the Sea in high school and appreciating it, but not realizing of course why Hemingway was/is one of the greats. I just remember the essence of that grueling story: that perseverance is its own reward, that just because the external trappings of success are not present doesn’t mean a man doesn’t have what it takes.

Come to think of it, I believe I also read a short story by Hemingway about the same time entitled The Undefeated, about a bullfighter. It has some of the same quality of Old Man and the Sea, which is a measure of courage that is worth its weight in gold. To oneself. So that’s been the extent of my whole exposure to Mr. Hemingway. Oh, and watching the 2011 Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, where the 1920s come alive with American expatriates in Paris—which is mainly what rekindles my reading of him.

A Farewell to Arms is one of Hemingway’s earlier novels, written in first person, set in World War I Italy, where the lead character is a volunteer from America working as an officer in the medical corps; basically he transports the wounded from the front lines back to field hospitals. During the war, in real life, Hemingway enlisted with the Italian ambulance drivers and was seriously wounded in the course of his duties. His lead character is similarly injured, only winds up with a number of plot twists that did not pertain to Hemingway’s real life. Let me read the first few sentences of Chapter 2:

The next year there were many victories [for the Italian forces against the Austrians and Germans in northern Italy]. The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wistaria vine purple on the side of the house. Now the fighting was in the next mountains beyond and was not a mile away. The town was very nice and our house was very fine.

This is the third actual page into the story, which proceeds from there with the recounting of the exigencies of war for those stuck in it for whatever reasons. As an editor now, with years of practical experience—also familiar with Hemingway’s magnificent “editor to the stars,” Max Perkins—I’m taken aback by the fundamental prose-logic (i.e. editing) issues that the above characteristic paragraph reveals in Papa Hemingway… though mainly at the beginning of the book. That is: good writing avoids the vague ‘there were/was’ construction; passive voice (‘was captured’) does not tell you the subject performing the action; and the ‘very nice, very fine’ sentence is childish. Finally, when the author states the fighting ‘was not a mile away,’ he can be more precise with ‘was not merely a mile away.’

These probably sound like nits to someone who doesn’t read or write a lot, but most can see that ol’ Papa’s paragraph above can stand serious improvement… mainly in the areas of logic and clarity. A large number of the descriptive passages are unexpectedly poorly composed (and edited). What about dialog? Again I have to say, of many conversations, to call them prosaic is to flatter them. The following kind of exchange is characteristic:

“It was very nice of you to ask me.”

“Are you quite well? They told me you were wounded… I hope you are well again.”

“I’m very well. Have you been well?”

“Oh, I am always well. But I am getting old. I detect signs of age now.”

“Yes…. I discipline myself but I find when I am tired that it is so much easier to talk Italian. So I know I must be getting old.”

“We could talk Italian. I am a little tired, too.”

Thus, surprisingly, a large share of Hemingway’s descriptive passages and dialog, at least in this book, are, to put it kindly, pedestrian. What makes him stand out as a great novelist, then? If he is one. Well, yes, he is. Reading this particular book, anyway, is like searching for diamonds at those massive dirt fields in Arkansas open to the public. Whether by plan or accident, Hemingway scatters among the copious amounts of plain dirt three or four gems of value that you can take home with you. Here are a few:

1

“… What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”

I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it….

2

If people [like his love, Catherine] bring so much courage to the world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

3

Catherine turned on all the lights and commenced unpacking. I ordered a whiskey and soda and lay on the bed and read the papers I had bought at the station. It was March, 1918, and the German offensive had started in France. I drank the whiskey and soda and read while Catherine unpacked and moved around the room.

These three passages give you a clear idea of the nature of the lead character Lieutenant Tenente, or at least his views on patriotism and nationalism and war. Also death stalking the courageous. [#3 gives you an idea why the book is entitled A Farewell to Arms.] In his day-to-day life, Tenente is confident, laconic, and effective in military situations, same as with his relationships… though with Catherine, he tends to gush like a schoolboy.

The storytelling is most compelling when Tenente is on the run or in a serious war-induced situation; you can definitely see the appeal of A Farewell to Arms to adventurers. But are the gem parts of the book sufficient to raise the whole of it from the generally mundane, even boring? I’m having a hard time getting there, frankly. :Perhaps that’s what Hemingway was trying to create, though, an aura of boredom and tedium, interrupted occasionally by either starkly grim effects of war or the rush of escaping it with a beautiful woman of one’s dreams… just to simply and gaily live common, decent lives like everyone else.

I like the metaphor and the hope of it, but I must say the book rarely escaped being dull. Still it has enough occasional brilliance that I look forward to his others. Also, I feel the book is of major cultural significance to the West… in literature, war, peace, and the rest. And I warmly invite discussion from those who have an interest, whether or not they share my views.

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