Saturday, 21 March 2009

A Farewell to Yawns (1929)

Here's a theory: Some people like war-based novels/poems/films/tv/'The White Cliffs of Dover'. Others don't.

Some things transcend this theory, when there's so much innate genius that pretty much everyone likes them. The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now. Catch 22. Um...(debatable) Tropic Thunder. This. The novel of Captain Corelli's Mandolin (come on, it was great!). Paradise Lost.

But 'Arms' doesn't - at least, the first 174 pages of it don't. And i should have known better before picking it - ever since trying to analyse a Robert Graves poem in year seven English maimed me into post-traumatic stress, I've known what side I'm on. Fuck you, war writing! So perhaps someone who thinks otherwise would be better placed to comment on 'Arms'. Otherwise, i'll just make the best of a tactical error.

In his favour, at least Hem keeps it simple; clean prose, no metaphor, no fancy poetry, just: I was in Italy. There were trees. And it was War. But it's not enough to keep me interested. Every morning, pre-commute, I look at five or so other books i'd rather be dipping into and dutifully pick up Arms. I can't pay attention to's just...(cue literary heresy) not very good. Of course, this isn't a 'so say we all' matter - Michelle told me it made her weep, which i assumed at the time was because it was a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation - that's what i want from my media.

Maybe Mish was talking about the dialogue though, cos this shit's weepable:

"I wish we could do something really sinful," Catherine said. "Everything we do seems so innocent and simple. I can't believe we do anything wrong."

"You're a grand girl."

"I only feel hungry. I get terribly hungry."

"You're a fine simple girl."

"I am a simple girl. No-one ever understood it except you."

"Once when I first met you I spent an afternoon thinking how we would go to the Hotel Cavour together and how it would be."

"That was awfully cheeky of you. This isn't the Cavour is it?"

"No. They wouldn't have taken us in there."

"They'll take us in sometime. But that's how we differ, darling. I never thought about anything."

"Didn't you ever at all?"

"A little," she said.

"Oh, you're a lovely girl." I poured another glass of wine.

"I'm a very simple girl," Catherine said.

It's cute, i suppose. I'm a simple girl too and i do like men, wine and trashy hotel rooms, so what more do i want? Also, it's of its time, so fair enough - a little. There is something gorgeous about having a mouth so laced up with propriety that you never cause others to overdose on your wordguff and instead just constantly say 'darling' - that's the 1920's for you. But it's still stilted as Thunderbirds, and that's not a timebound necessity. You don't stumble over awkward anachronisms nearly as much in Virginia Woolf's 1920's output...probably because she was an extraordinarily good writer. By comparison, Hemmo's people seem static; especially Catherine. Tenente's exchanges with her are kinda shoddy; we haven't yet seen any more of who she is other than what variations on the above example reveal - and they reveal that she's, guess what, 'lovely'. With 'nice' hair. Hemmo, fuck! I thought this guy could write! He has taken leave of his adjectival power. Or maybe he never had any. Or maybe he doesn't believe in adjectives as superpowers. Or maybe he can't write women as anything other than ciphers for his general feelings about beauty, yearning and the horn. Which means that you could replace Catherine with the words "hair curlers" and it would amount to the same kind of objectification.

Things may get better, story-wise, as they get worse, war-wise. That's my hope for the next few hundred pages. Gunfire, extreme limb loss, and something to give a shit about.

Although, as I mentioned to Rav, if someone can't empathise with an honest, clear, occasionally pretty sexy account of something, then PERHAPS (and here's the twist you didn't see coming), the problem lies with their emotional intelligence and ability to leap into others' imaginations - ie. i am a bad reader, in this case. Hmm. It's a tough one to call and I'm simultaneously hoping other Book Clubees will come forth and give their opinions on it, whilst advising you not to waste your time on it.

Right, given its general reputation, and the way Hemmo's prose has been fetishized for decades, i'm willing to give this one to the book.

So: Bad peacetime-lovin' reader, not bad book. For now.

Anyone willing to pick up the baton? Rav, darling?


  1. I am now officially Carrying A Farewell To Arms Around In My Bag. Which is the official prelude to starting reading it.

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  3. Me too! Now I'm gonna hit my head against my office wall repetidly with the hope of inducing temporary amnesia and forget how much you hated the first 172 pages Eli...

  4. I've always been highly suspicious of Hemmo on the basis everyone seems to love him and I think his novels have rubbish titles (I'm judgemental like that).

    That being said, I'm quite a fan of war related novels/poetry/novellas. I might have to read this, despite your hatred of it thus far in.

    Can I propose some sort of comparative discussion soon? Only because I'm devouring Nemirovsky novels/novellas/unfinished masterpieces at a rate of knots. Her writing is incredibly of its time, but still incredibly evocative of 1930s Paris.

    Also, on a slightly related note; have you read any of the stuff to come out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some is pretty good. Some of it is horribly trite and I think possibly going to reak of the early 00s in a few years time in the same way Hemmo seems to exude timeliness (of a sort)

    Anyway, this is really a post about how I plan to read this. And then post some more.

    And Corelli's Mandalin was fairly rubbish. And the film is worse. Nick Cage?!

  5. Ooh ooh Nemirovsky - yeah she right popular. All the papers have been raving about her for quite a while. isn't she like the elliot smith of her time (without the music and suicide), i mean the wasted talent bit. Suite Francaise is meant to be ace, non? Is that the one to go for?

    Farewell is ok but i have 3 pages left and can't be bothered to finish them. am reading tom robbins' 'half asleep in frog pajamas' (in preparation for lonely hunter of course...) and those 3 pages aint gonna get a look in. But you might enjoy's a quick read either way.

    Also 1 - iraqi and afghan lit? sweet, but i'd have to sever my pathetic umbilical connection to the western canon first. this can be easily arranged. got names?

    and also 2 - yeah nick cage is a Loser, it's all over his face. that film can fuck off. but the book, when you've just done 'romeo and juliet' for GCSE and you're a bucket of hormones and budding romantic cliches, corelli's mandolin is the business.

    But we shall talk no more about it. This ain't two mothers meeting in Waitrose. This is DUSTY SHIT!

  6. I'm deliberately not reading this as I'm going to Cuba tomorrow and I intend to leaf through Big Ern's For Whom the Bell Tolls and the one about the old man at the seaside.
    I may or may not report back depending how much boxing takes place in either.

    Oh and Eli, please don't recommend anymore counter-revolutionary literature for me as I'd very much like to get through customs.

  7. I think the one about the old man is entirely about him boxing his way out of a sandcastle.