Monday, 4 May 2009

A Goodbye To Guns


Rav here. Taking advantage of my hard-won administrator’s privileges, and with apologies for the delay – as you may well know I’ve been, ahem, distracted – here’s my take on A Farewell to Arms.

You remember Titanic? The film, I mean? Some people hated it, and some people loved it. My English teacher, I remember, said he thought it was great without any caveating or qualification, which I remember thinking was admirably unpretentious of him. Anyway, I half-liked it: but in the reverse way to a lot of my friends. They all hated the first two hours, with the Leo-Kate romance, but enjoyed it once the ship started sinking.

I completely disagreed. I found myself reasonably well swept along by the first two hours, which though cheesy in places (“I’m flying!”) nonetheless made me want Kate’n’Leo not to die. But once the ship started its interminable decline, I was bored rigid. Water crashing through a room! And another room! And a corridor! Leo’s trapped! Now he’s free! Now he’s trapped again! Billy Zane is waving a gun for some reason! Yawn. When the stern of the ship tipped up vertical in that actually-quite-nifty climactic scene and was sucked forever into the whirlpool, I breathed a sigh of relief that we could get back to the characters. For the ten remaining minutes, at least.

So fucking what, you ask? Well, the more perceptive of you have probably figured it out: I feel the same about A Farewell to Arms. I actually really like the main relationship, the which manages through the sheer inscrutability of the writing to appear both cynical and gloriously heartfelt – at least on the narrator’s part. Catherine’s determination to play the part of the dutiful lover always seems to stem from the conviction that she can’t ever actually succeed in giving Henry a happy home – which, of course, turns out to be true. She knows she’ll fail, so there’s a play-acting quality to it that makes it sweeter than it is depressing. Henry’s transition from detached cynic to hopeless romantic is more jolting, which is odd, what with Hemingway being the big writer of men and all. But generally, while I wouldn’t  agree with the blurb on the back of my copy which says that the relationship “glows with an intensity unrivalled in modern literature,” I do certainly find it touching and largely believable.

But then comes the “war bit” – according to my copy’s blurb, “one of the greatest moments in literary history.” Well, I am obviously a bloody great philistine, because I could barely keep my eyes open for most of it. Little details, in principle, are the essence of realism, especially Hemingway’s studiedly hardboiled variety. But the nice details – the failed St. Anthony’s medal on page 44, for example – are swamped by the sheer amount of passionless description. They trudge/drive from place to place, Hemingway seeming to deliberately allow the reader to lose all sense of their actual route or destination. They eat. They drink. They walk a bit more. Little, supposedly touching, moments of compatriotship occur. They drink some more. Then it all comes to a faintly infeasible conclusion with the hero – spoiler alert - swimming off to safety.

I don’t know why it didn’t work for me; there are similar pages of description in The Old Man and The Sea that I found perfectly compelling. But I think it’s because, unlike in Old Man, the action section of Farewell comes after an awful lot of something else – explicit and quite generous characterisation, making the grittily emotionless writing of the war section seem somehow churlish. The reader feels bereft at being deprived of Catherine and her strange charm, and the guilt-free idyll their relationship offers. But instead of letting the reader associate their feelings of deprivation with Henry’s, he doesn’t allow Henry to acknowledge his, leaving us simply bored.

Still, throughout the book there are those odd little turns of phrase which always grab the attention. Like, on page 14, talking about the priest: “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later.” Or the wonderful moments where a sort of sublime insight arises from a long gusher of description, like the opening paragraph of chapter 2.

And there are some distracting oddities. Like the fact that everyone drinks all the time, even while on active duty, without ever apparently feeling any ill effects. The novel’s obsession with alcohol has probably been the subject of a PhD thesis or two, but I – being, it must be said, a total lightweight- just find it a bit befuddling. A pleasant evening meal is accompanied by two bottles of wine between the couple. Stocking up to leave for Udine the motley crew of retreaters take several bottles of wine, but no water. Wine and apples is considered “a good breakfast.” I honestly don’t know if this is simply of its time or a weird Hemingway tic. I know people used to have a beer at morning break back then, but surely this is a bit OTT? It’s page 273 in my copy, after hours of rowing, before anyone actually drinks any water. In Italy, in wartime!

Then – just as clear but just as matter-of-factly presented – is the weird homoerotic charge to Henry’s friendship with Rinaldi. “Baby, baby,” he calls him. On page 67, it’s surely more than just cultural differences in attitudes towards male affection going on here:

“We won’t quarrel, baby. I love you too much. But don’t be a fool.”

“No. I’ll be wise like you.”

“Don’t be angry, baby. Laugh. Take  a drink. I must go, really.”

“You’re a good old boy.”

“Now you see. Underneath we are the same. We are war brothers. Kiss me good-by.”

“You’re sloppy.”

“No. I am just more affectionate.”

I felt his breath come towards me. “Good-by. I come to see you again soon.” His breath went away. “I won’t kiss you if you don’t want. I’ll send your English girl. Good-by, baby…”

I mean, you know.

Then there are the sudden moments of insight, which typically come in sudden rushes of words, like after days of only thinking thoughts worth saying – practical, quick thoughts – Henry suddenly allows his thoughts to race faster than he can speak and is surprised where it takes him. Like the treatise on the deceptive nature of concepts like honour, on pages 184-5 in my copy (“the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”) These rare insights gain extra power for being rare, of course, and it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of Hemingway’s bare style. But there are really only a handful such moments in the book.

Basically it’s a flawed book, it seems to me. Maybe those flaws are really marks of genius that I’m too daft to see. Certainly Hemingway conjures up a fine romance; he also has the makings of a fine semi-comic, semi-tragic war novel. But the tensions, in terms of plot and style, of combining the two ultimately overwhelm the book.

1 comment:

  1. Rav!! Thankyou!! Hot damn you're articulate - there's things you've said that I was like, I hadn't realised this but yup, you're right. This made me feel vicariously rigorous. Also, it illuminated another side of the novel for me, and why it's feasible to say it was a bit shite.

    Not to say the sole value of this was to validate my moaning. Let's see - your main argument is that character-driven narrative (in Farewell, Titanic, etc) is far more involving than descriptions of action. Of course, not in general. Only when the action is interminable, passionless and yawn-inducing. This could suggest two things - we're more into the human truths (gossip about people other than ourselves) generated by fiction than we're into the poetry of place. Or it could suggest that in another writer's hands, the action, the mountains, booze and guns could have been compelling, and that Hemmo just didn't have the chops, couldn't find the words. But we're out on our own here.

    Since his prose style is of the 'say what you see' variety (credit to this terminology goes to Roy Walker of 'Catchphrase' - in excellently impressive intertextual pomo fashion, in the late 80s Walker successfully assaulted the primacy of the critical word 'realism' through the medium of gameshow), Hemmo barely bothers with the poetic impulse. But I don't have a problem with 'say what you see', in general. Carson McCullers made me spellbound with variations on the same technique. (She won the 20 quid cash prize). So, I appreciate that you hit some nails on their heads as to why the 'guns blazing' section leaves us underwhelmed. Ie. yes - the fact that Henry doesn't properly acknowledge his feelings of deprivation and instead skirts around them in fever dreams and moody bouts - which leaves nothing in the text to carry us along to deeper psychological realism, but rather leaves us frustrated...I agree. Tis a very good point. I think it might be where part of the whole famous Hemmo/macho thing comes into play - without Henry being able to understand himself better, he gets stuck in the shallow pool of his basic mind. ie. (WAAAAH WHERE'S MY LADY AND HER NICE HAIR, PASS THE BOOZE AND LET'S TRUDGE ON, OH, THERE'S A TREE)*200. But what real man needs to navelgaze or ask probing questions about what he desires or lacks? So yeah, nice point, we get stuck there, at the level of Henry's amateur whiny psychology. Which is booooring.

    As for the booze and the (at least to me) hilarious homoerotics of Rinaldi, baby, I can only assume that if we were old school readers from decades past, we'd not feel these as distracting oddities. Reading these bits, I felt as if I were watching an old film which was lauded at the time and yet left me feeling WTF. Things that, presumably, if we'd read them back then, existed as smoothly as any other aspect of the reality Hemmo was trying to convey now seem like bumpy weirdnesses sticking awkwardly out of the text. Have they made a film of this? Cos if not, it will probably be a Joe Wright dir./Keira Knightley version, and you can bet those earnest fuckers will earnestly leave these hilarious anachronisms in. Oh, I feel alienated.

    Also, if there are a few sublime insights in there (which I agree there are - i'd find my copy to quote from but it mysteriously disappeared around the day we ran out of toilet paper), couldn't Hemmo, being capable of such insight, could have edited more of them in and taken out apples and wine for breakfast ad nauseum?

    I think our judgements on Arms' flaws are fair. It's easy to sit and castigate a writer, particularly someone writing in a period we can't ever fully understand. But I think you're right (and me too) - to a degree, Hemmo could do the romance. I'm less sold on the idea of Catherine as a three-dimensional, solid character than you are. But yeah, the romance is somewhat winning, i guess. And Hemmo could also, in part, do the tragicomic war novel (though what a chore reading a whole novel written like that would be). I'm not quite sure I understand how the tensions overwhelm it (I need more coffee), I just think 'Farewell' stops short of what it could have been. It would be really nice to have someone explain why we're being philistines. Otherwise, I'm just going to use this Hemmo morning to further satisfy my thirst for knowledge about Martha Gellhorn, Hemmo's third wife, and give old Earnest a break.

    Ps. No trolls are allowed to comment: 'well, if you think it's so shit, why don't you write something better yourself?' Cos i'm lazy, alright?
    Pps. Okay, i think the DABC is far off the lofty heights of having trolls.