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?