Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is certainly a “war is hell” story. It contains brutal, pointless actions. It contains both bravery and bravado. When Lieutenant Frederic Henry and fellow World War I ambulance personnel hear the ubiquitous explosions echoing around them in the northern Italian mountains, they sometimes nervously speculate about the enemy’s next attack, sometimes casually dismiss any imminent threat. Their food is bad, wounds serious, friendships short-lived. Even the love story of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley unfolds beneath a funereal pall.

Scribner's 2012 Hemingway Library Edition includes an introduction Hemingway wrote in 1948. I loved this paragraph: “The title of the book is A Farewell to Arms and except for three years there has been war of some kind almost ever since it has been written [1929]. Some people used to say, why is the man so preoccupied and obsessed with war, and now, since 1933 perhaps it is clear why a writer should be interested in the constant, bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war. Having been to too many of them, I am sure that I am prejudiced, and I hope that I am very prejudiced. But it is the considered belief of the writer of this book that wars are fought by the finest people that there are, or just say people, although, the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet; but they are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.”

I have to admit I enjoyed Hemingway’s introductory prose more than I enjoyed the style of the novel itself. So much of the story was insipid, inane dialog—as though an eyewitness had obsessively journaled every word every character said. I know Hemingway carefully crafted the story because the Scribner edition I read includes copies of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscript pages, early drafts, and 47 alternative endings. Generally, I appreciate his economy of language, but in this novel, tiny details and banal dialog became tiresome and shallow for me.

That said, I was surprised by a few gems. At one point Lt. Henry’s surgeon friend and roommate, Rinaldi, insightfully recalls the pair’s womanizing days when Henry had tried to “clean your conscience with a toothbrush.” Soon after, Henry and a priest discuss defeat and victory, noting, “We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” They don’t believe in victory anymore and wonder if defeat might be better. When Henry and a colleague talk about fields of potatoes the Austrian enemy had planted in sacred Italian soil and the Italian troops’ food shortage, the colleague valiantly declares that what the Italian army had done would not be in vain. Clearly, sadly, this very declaration of hope was in vain—wars continue to this day.

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