A Farewell to Arms. Thanks for all the fish.


You may recall my mention of a young North American? At the time, he was known to me as an engineer, now medical student, and a reader of True Crime and Conspiracy books (blergh). But I learnt long ago not to judge people (much) on the books they read for fun, particularly when there are weighty tomes of pathology, physiology and pharmacology flying around in the offing. This is fortunate.

Had I judged, I would not have ended up in a conversation about our favourite books. Nor would I have heard him use the phrase “my favourite Hemingway”. I was so shocked that I did three things 1) texted Miss L, my very good friend from the bookshop days, to share the surprise, 2) resolved to read the copy of A Farewell to Arms that had been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile since same, and 3) finished it within a fortnight.

Kindred readers are a rare, precious commodity.

This is a war book and not a war book. I was warned it would be a ‘boy’ book. Fortunately I read and enjoy both and therefore had a splendid time. There is black humour, ascerbic wit and all the jocularity we have come to expect from stories from the front and indeed Hemingway, as I understand it. This is one man’s very small experience of a very large war.

We follow officer Frederic Henry, an American volunteer in the Italian army, through nights in trenches, officers’ messes, winter leave and hospital recuperation. There is the occasional explosion, grim defeat and violent death (I guess those are the boy parts?) and volumes of vermouth, whisky, cianti, grappa, beer and wine consumed between times. There is a priest with depression, a surgeon with syphilis, a number of friends lost and very little won.

The victories, when they come, are small and intensely personal – a beautiful nurse, a hidden stash of contraband drink on a hospital ward, cheese in an abandoned house, a loyal friend in a hostile place and a daring escape to Switzerland in a rowboat. The tragedies seem hollow. Part and parcel of the time. Inevitable. And so it goes, I guess. Such experience cannot but beget insight and when it is given, it is poignant.

“The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.”

It’s strange to read the work that has inspired so many of my favourite writers, after I have read the progeny. Plot is developed through narrative but character? Character is driven by long and effective dialogue. Effective because it is uninterrupted by pointless attributions, coloured only by its tone, language and content. We know Catherine is completely guileless and naive without being told as much. We know attitudes to war are changing as the years drag on, wearing people thin. We can track Frederic’s disillusionment and increasing sense of hopelessness with each drink, just as we come to see his affection for Catherine as a desperate act to cling to something innocent and full of optimism – or perhaps I am excessively cynical? And still there is laughter. I only wish I had worked in hospitals at a time when the patients could drink themselves into alcoholic liver disease on the ward!

But if I am cynical, it is because Hemingway, bless him, and the writers that have followed in his tradition have made me this way. My world view and politics are very much shaped by their insight. This is why I read. This is why they write!

I will definitely be reading more Hemingway.

  • While reading this book, I was thinking about all the war poems I’ve studied – W.H. Auden, McCrae (In Flanders Fields), Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon come to mind. Poetry carnival anyone?
  • Disagree with me? I’d love to hear about it!
  • Any Hemingway contemporaries or progeny you would like to recommend? Which one should I read next?
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8 responses to “A Farewell to Arms. Thanks for all the fish.

  1. I love Hemingway! The first thing I ever read was “The Old Man and The Sea,” but I was really young. I didn’t read “Farewell” until college— and I’m glad I waited. Funny thing about Hemingway— he’s played up to be some man’s man writer, but he developed the most thorough female characters. Have you read any of his short stories?

    • I think i’ve read some of the shorts along the way – because something prompted me to buy the novel other than the general ‘should read’ vibe that Hemingway has. But I would be pushed to tell you which shorts. I do love a good short story though

      Little known fact about me. I have to read anthologies backwards. Otherwise I expect the stories to be connected somehow.

      • “Hills Like White Elephants” — It’s the most amazing example of character development as well as talking around a difficult subject.

        If you will consider finding “Men Without Women,” Hemingway’s story collection w/ “Hills” in it, I’ll do the same, I think.

        I haven’t read all of Hemingway, only certain things. I *do* like him. Do you think he is simultaneously under- and overrated?

        Here’s a fact about me— I get so nervous reading a new novel that I often stop and read the ending first, in order to help me to try and relax and enjoy my reading experience.

  2. Simultaneously under- and overrated is a good way to describe it. Particularly from this neck of the woods. People who recommended books when I was growing up were all very euro-centric. I was never forced to read Hemingway in the way I was say, Dickens and I was expecting it to be much heavier and more wordy, the way I’ve heard people groan over it.

    But it really just reads like most other contemporary books I love and I wonder how well that style went down with the snobbier readers of the day – I mean some of those techniques are still a hard sell with conservative readers today.

    I will keep an eye out for Men Without Women – might have to make another visit to the second hand book store…

    Do you get nervous because you’re worrying that you won’t like the ending? I can think of a few books I might have stopped reading had I known about the ending. Like the Life of Pi. I can’t give you the spoiler if you haven’t read it. But I was SO disappointed.

  3. Had to comment re: Life of Pi. Never have I felt so let down by a book!! I would have preferred to have no resolution at all than the one offered.

    With Hemingway I’d recommend ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (it might just get a recommend because it was my introduction to him). If you liked the war component then ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves is great.

    If you haven’t already, you really need to meet my father in law..

  4. Pete!! I’m so glad to find someone who agrees about Life of Pi. I’m disappointed all over again when I think about it!

    For Whom the Bell Tolls is definitely on my list but I hadn’t thought of Robert Graves. Good call.

    I have indeed met your father in law and spent an unnatural (well for normal people) amount of time perusing his book shelves. He is a hip hip gentleman.

    Thanks for visiting!!

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