He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognize it. The last country to realize they were cooked would win the war.
(from A Farewell to Arms, pages 133-134)
I was really excited when Serena suggested A Farewell to Arms for the War Through the Generations read-along, mainly because I’ve owned my brittle, tattered used copy for over a decade and have yet to read a Hemingway novel. However, I knew I was in trouble when I alternated from wanting to fall asleep and wanting to throw the book across the room…and I was only on the first page. Right away, I determined I was not a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style, which is mostly sparse prose with bland descriptions and some rambling paragraphs with a glaring lack of commas. But because it was our read-along pick for the WWI Reading Challenge, I didn’t abandon the book.
A Farewell to Arms is set mostly in Italy during World War I and based somewhat on Hemingway’s war experiences. The main character, Lieutenant (Tenente) Henry is an American ambulance driver in the Italian army. He seems to be a calm man with command of any situation, and he appears to be well liked. Although the war is always there hanging over the characters, it’s mostly a love story, centering on the relationship between Henry and an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, whose fiancé was killed in battle. Theirs is an interesting romance, one that I had trouble buying, at least at first.
Catherine comes off as kind of crazy at the beginning, which I attributed to her recent loss and her hesitance to start a new relationship. She begins working in Milan when Henry is transferred there for surgery and therapy after he is wounded, and that is when their relationship really heats up. Catherine’s blabbering conversations underscore her weakness; she prattles on about how she and Henry are the same person and how she is nothing without him, and she’s always asking if he loves her and going on about how she only wants to please him. Pages and pages of this really got on my nerves.
The story hits a high point, however, when Henry returns to the front, and the Italians are forced to retreat. Hemingway’s sparse descriptions work here, emphasizing the bleakness and desolation of war. But events conspire to bring Catherine and Henry back together, then it’s more of the same, and I grew bored again. It becomes a bit more exciting just before what I found to be an abrupt ending.
Much of what I didn’t like about A Farewell to Arms has to do with the distance placed between the reader and the narrator, which is disappointing because the story is told in the first person. I never felt like I knew Henry; for much of the book, his inner thoughts are concealed from the reader. His reactions to big, life-changing events are muted, and because I didn’t know him, I couldn’t tell whether shock or indifference was to blame. I understand that Hemingway’s writing style is more about the things that aren’t said, but I just didn’t feel like it worked here.
A Farewell to Arms is strong when it comes to the war, but less than thrilling when it comes to the romance. Hemingway’s writing style just isn’t for me. Even so, by the end of the book, I did find myself liking Catherine a little bit. Although I thought the book was just okay and probably wouldn’t have felt guilty abandoning it, overall I’m glad I read it.
Have any of you read Hemingway? What did you think?
Disclosure: A Farewell to Arms is from my personal library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.