I last read a Hemingway novel in high school. The Old Man and the Sea did not inspire me to pick up another one. As I recall, my adolescent self yawned in boredom.
But that was in another century.
And A Farewell to Arms presents itself as the ultimate American WW1 novel.
So in I dive.
The plot, in 60 words: Frederic Henry meets Catherine Barkley. He, an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. She, a British nurse serving in a hospital behind the Italian lines. The war draws them together and tears them apart … together, apart … repeat a few times. We are to believe it is love. And then Catherine meets a tragic end.
I am drawn in from the start. Intrigued by what is said and – more importantly – what isn’t. Who is this Tenente? What kind of name is that? Why is he living in a house in a village, watching the war in the distance? Page by page, more of the picture is painted: Tenente is Italian for lieutenant. The medical units are set up in the village, behind the lines. We’re into Book Two before Frederic Henry tells us his name and attaches it to Tenente.
Go with the flow of the words and trust that snippets of information will weave together to tell the story.
The observation is sharp, as is the observing.
There were many marble busts on painted wooden pillars along the walls of the room they used for an office. … They had the complete marble quality of all looking alike. Sculpture had always seemed a dull business – still, bronzes looked like something. But marble busts all looked like a cemetery. There was one fine cemetery though – the one at Pisa. Genoa was the place to see the bad marbles. This had been the villa of a very wealthy German and the busts must have cost him plenty. I wondered who had done them and how much he got. I tried to make out whether they were members of the family or what; but they were all uniformly classical. You could not tell anything about them. (ch VI)
Frederic’s relationship with Rinaldi (the doctor with whom he shares a room) is lively, often funny.
“Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”
“No,” I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.” (ch X)
And then we come to Catherine.
At first, both she and Frederic acknowledge the relationship as a game. For him, she is another diversion, unlike the prostitutes. For her, he is a foil for grief over her dead fiancé. As time passes, she is conveniently available when he has time and conveniently independent otherwise. Despite the mutual claims of love, their exchanges seem insipid.
It’s Frederic’s tale, and we see Catherine only through his eyes. The war companions are fleshed out, she remains two-dimensional.
The priest has Frederic’s number:
What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve. (ch XI)
The verdict? My older self appreciates Hemingway’s style. The novel shows a rare view of the war on the Italian front. But a man’s man who so dislikes women cannot write a convincing love story.