A Farewell to Arms

Having started “Alexander Hamilton” (by Chernow), I realized I must publish my post on “A Farewell to Arms”. And that in turn means I must make a confession: my mother is much smarter than I. I realized that once before, years ago, and then forgot it, repeatedly. Being an English prof also helps her case.

I was confused. So confused! What was “A Farewell to Arms” about? I wrote an entire introductory paragraph ridiculing the title of the book, but you will not be reading that. My mother the English prof claims the title of the book is practically the best thing about the book. Why? The main character simultaneously quits the military and loses the arms of his lover. So, the title is a double whammy and I missed it entirely.

Hopefully the rest of my thoughts are more incisive, and less embarrassing.

Were I to sum up this book I would say it’s an exploration or expression of a stoic view of pain. The main character, Henry – whose name you don’t get until about four fifths of the way through the book – is an unruffled, standard yet savvy fellow. Of the American breed, who has decided to join the Italian army. So normal. And given how normal it is, you are given no explanation.

[Spoilers follow, of the most regrettable kind if you intend to read this book.]

The author tells you Henry’s story with much emphasis on what bread, cheese, or wine he was consuming and with zero transitional phrases – get ready for bumps – but also with a lovely ease. Hemingway’s lack of ornamentation is refreshing. Soon after that it’s annoying, because it goes too far. His style becomes mildly abrasive and literally hard to be follow because, believe it or not transitions exist to, uhm, transition you. Along with transitions, Hemingway has kicked nearly all human emotion out the door: the book feels flat, one dimensional, unexplored, simplistic, stiff, stilted, nearly surreal (because I can tell you my life isn’t this colorless), and lifeless.

Harsh critique, right? At the same time as being lifeless, his simple descriptions of nature, or simply of the room the characters occupy, are somehow warm, compelling, and rich. He uses simple language – appropriately complementing his simple style – and it could be that the lack of difficulty in processing his word choice, and/or the conciseness (due to lack of ornamentation), brings his descriptions great clarity and therefore emotional impact. Anyway, I remember the cold air of the Swiss mountains they hiked through, and the red velvet of the hotel room where Catherine was concerned he’d think of her as a whore.

What I mostly remember however was the lack of depth of the romantic relationship in this book. Did Ernest Hemingway have a lover or wife ever? I would truly hope it carried more life than this relationship. The conversations that Henry and Catherine have are painfully simple. They are what I imagine eighth graders might have, eighth graders who are having sex and who are in the Italian military and who have slightly Victorian ideas of romantic relationships. “Are you pleased with me? I hope you’re pleased with me.” That’s Catherine. And then so often, the other character will respond with no response to what was previously said. They just change the topic, no warning, and the other person never gets upset or confused that the topic just changed or that the other person didn’t answer their question. Stilted, swift, unfinished conversations.

You know that time that Henry has a near-death experience and bravely dives into the river out of the hands and guns of the hordes of military men surrounding him who are about to kill him, and he miraculously gets away? Well, when he finds Catherine, he shares none of this story. Normal everyday occurrence, apparently. Instead, they go directly back to their “interesting” conversations. (They actually had the first interesting thing they could have talked about!)

Negative critique aside, it was fantastic to get my first Hemingway experience, to view the European countryside of World War I, to get an eye into Godless psychology (both Henry and Catherine “have no religion” as they put it) at a time when it was a little less acceptable, and to see one author’s attempt to address a wrong: the great pain of the world. This book is dark. Bleak. Empty. It’s not that you don’t get an interesting ride on the way down, but Henry’s own military trying to kill him at the end of the book, the miscarriage of his child, and Catherine’s death in labor bring the book to a quiet, horrible, and answer-less ending. The only element I can see consistently woven through the book is unanswered pain. Henry doesn’t care for his family – this is demonstrated in how little time he thinks about his family and in his response to Catherine’s concern for Henry to update his family with the fact that he’s alive. Henry has no ties to anyone that matters. His only real tie – which feels truly superficial – is to Catherine. His love, Catherine, dies a horrible and needless death, he loses his first child, and the book ends. He walks away in the rain.

Makes for good drama. And certainly he connects with his readers because who doesn’t know pain? But for me, it’s entirely unclear what the book is about. Meaning, if you are Ernest Hemingway, why write it? If life is so bad, where do you get the energy to write a book, and more importantly, to what purpose? There is some reason to be alive for Hemingway and, in this book, I see no reflection of it. I see only stoic expression of pain, no answer to pain, and resulting bleakness.

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