Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A farewell to Hemingway's boyish innocence

This is difficult for me. I can't very well be trusted to offer an unbiased opinion of A Farewell to Arms when I am clearly in love with its author. But I was a journalist . . . I can be unbiased. *struggles to keep a straight face*

So young and full of hope.

This is the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. This is also, in many ways, the story of Hemingway himself, who was, coincidentally, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. But that's not all. According to the back of my 1957 copy, it's "one of the most moving love stories ever written." Really, blurb writer? That's the description you're going with?

I was skeptical of that summary before I read the book (this isn't my first Hemingway rodeo), and the more I read, the more irate I became at said blurb writer. Is this deserving of the label "classic"? Of course. Is it poignant? Absolutely! Is it the greatest love story ever told? Dear God, I hope not.

Fred's love interest, British nurse Catherine Barkley, is said to be based on Agnes von Kurowski, the real-life nurse who cared for Hemingway in Milan after his legs were nearly blown off by a mortar. I'm not sure how closely the fictional relationship between Fred and Catherine parallels that of Ernest and Agnes, but the two stories certainly don't end the same. In real life, Agnes broke Ernest's heart, which was allegedly the catalyst for his future pattern of leaving one wife after another; in book world . . . well, let's just say that Ernest rewrote history a bit.

She's a heart breaker, dream maker, love taker.

For evidence of the damaged element in the Fred/Catherine equation, I present to you their second conversation in life (i.e., they have JUST met):
Fred: "This is the third day. But I'm back now."
Catherine: "And you do love me?"
F: "Yes."
C: "You did say you loved me, didn't you?"
F: "Yes," I lied. "I love you." I had not said it before.
C: "And you call me Catherine?"
F: "Catherine."
C: "Say, 'I've come back to Catherine in the night.'"
F: "I've come back to Catherine in the night."
C: "Oh, darling, you have come back, haven't you?"
This. chick. is. BONKERS. And Fred knows it! He says in the next paragraph, to us, the helpless readers: "I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into." Oh, Hem-, er, Fred. I care! I care what you're getting into!

The real love story, as I saw it, was between Fred and the various male characters. His conversations with Catherine are vapid (because she's basically a fembot), but when he speaks with Rinaldi or the military priest or Count Greffi or any other male person anywhere in the world, incredible truths are spoken. Many people might blame Agnes for this, but one careless woman does not a sexist make.

Catherine? Is that you?

When I wasn't weeping for Fred, I was thoroughly enjoying Hemingway's writing style. Generally short sentences, with the occasional stream-of-consciousness, page-long paragraph; crisp dialogue; journalistic detail in recounting events and locations . . . the usual things that make me want to squeeze the boozing scoundrel. I mean, just listen to this:
"The war was a long way away. Maybe there wasn't any war. There was no war here. Then I realized it was over for me. But I did not have the feeling that it was really over. I had the feeling of a boy who thinks of what is happening at a certain hour at the schoolhouse from which he has played truant."
And this:
"If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong in 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." 
*Sniffle* It's just so beautiful.

One last thing: To the previous owner of this paperback, in future, please refrain from writing BLATANT SPOILERS in the page margins. Also, "Hemingway" is spelled with one M.

1 comment:

  1. IvthgenerationvanwertNovember 30, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    makes 1 yearn 4 warn Havana (&/or Kety West) nites-  + 'various debaucheries!,,,,,, well writtrn!\