As an aspiring writer I read a ton of Ernest Hemingway. Although I found Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck more congenial models, I owe my preference for brevity to Papa Hemingway (and to an NYU English professor, John Delgrosso, who kindly but ruthlessly critiqued my nascent style).
My favorite Hemingway novel is A Farewell to Arms (1929). I hadn’t read it since high school, so I picked it up again this week. As a teenager I was thunderstruck by the book’s idea of just up and leaving social insanity, so much so that it’s hard for me to recall the title; I so vividly remember the line “I had made a separate peace” from the beginning of Chapter 34 that I think of those words as the real title.
This time I took a few other things from the text.
The protagonist is Frederic Henry, an American who joins the Italian army during World War I as a lieutenant in charge of an ambulance unit. We know little about him beyond that he can’t go a meal without alcohol, was studying architecture when the war broke out, and continues to receive a generous stipend from his estranged family. When he first meets his love interest, the English nurse Catherine Barkley, she asks why he joined the Italian ambulance corps. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “There isn’t always an explanation for everything.” Despite that emotional elusiveness, she finds him sweet, he finds her a “grand girl,” and after he’s wounded she helps him recuperate, culminating in pregnancy.
The novel doesn’t gain momentum until Frederic returns to war in the Italian Alps and becomes part of a chaotic retreat in which he’s nearly executed by his own side. After a miraculous escape he finds Catherine, and together they flee to Switzerland to forge their separate peace.
Except — here’s the message I took this time — it cannot last. As Hemingway, through Frederic, tells us later in Chapter 34:
The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Catherine and the baby die in childbirth, breaking Frederic in countless places.
Hemingway is less esteemed these days, and not just because he’s a dead white male in an expanded literary universe. Time has exposed how much his taut prose hides a psychological tin ear, particularly for women. The love story at the heart of A Farewell to Arms reads more like a porn script than Nobel-worthy literature. True, war makes people stupid, and often that’s enough to explain their behavior, but try detecting any realism in this pillow talk:
[Catherine] “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?”
“What would you like me to do now that you’re all ready?”
“Come to the bed again.”
“All right. I’ll come.”
“Oh darling, darling, darling,” I said.
“‘You see,” she said, “I do anything you want.”
“You’re so lovely.”
“I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet.”
“I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. Just what you want.”
I’m sorry, but even at the zenith of her infatuation with me, The Fabulous Wife would have laughed uncontrollably after uttering the first five words of Catherine’s dialogue, and rightly so.
Despite that glaring weakness, which can be entertaining with enough distance, I recommend reading (or re-reading) A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s break from the mannered prose of the early twentieth century had an impact that lasted into my lifetime, and the account of the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto may be some of the best war writing since The Iliad.