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.”
“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.