Peter Berard looks at Hemingway's classic.
A Farewell to Arms
Rating: Five Stars
Ernest Hemingway! Not quite the figure of opprobrium in contemporary pop-literary circles that, say, David Foster Wallace or Charles Bukowski is, but you do see his name checked in lists of “bro” writers. I reject the entire premise out of hand as a useful way of approaching literature. But you can see why the scribblers of these lists and ironically named “think”-pieces would include Hemingway. These are, more than anything, indicators of consumer preferences and I’ve seen Hemingway’s name and big bearded image used to sell products to insecure young men. Moreover, Hemingway, like any writer of semi-autobiographical fiction, was also in the business of selling a particular image of himself. Turnabout’s fair play, I suppose.
A Farewell to Arms is based on Hemingway’s experiences as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver embedded with the Italian army during the First World War. Starting a little while before the Americans enter the war in 1917, we see the experiences of viewpoint character/Hemingway analog, Frederic Henry, on the stalemated southern front between Italy and Austria-Hungary. We don’t get much about battle — Henry is severely wounded in the leg by an artillery shell in the first battle we see — but we get a lot about the things front memoirs often focus on: meals, mud, chain of command annoyances, drink. The characters are always drinking, on and behind the front. They drink all kinds of things but they often drink straight vermouth, which sounds gross but what do I know? The past is another country.
Recovering from his wound, Henry falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barker. It’s one of those early twentieth century/wartime loves that comes across suspiciously sudden by contemporary standards but which no one really questions. Henry knocks Cat up and is sent back to the front in time for a terrible Italian retreat. They’re executing officers who retreat, so Henry hops a train the hell out of there and reunites with Cat. Presumably, all this is made easier by the fact that Henry is American, and can reasonably present himself as a visitor, not an Italian citizen whose place was in the military. I’m not sure what all his status was, anyway, being a non-national volunteer. I don’t think the Red Cross, Hemingway’s employer during the war, comes up in the book — Henry has an Italian army rank, it's complicated, and I guess it doesn’t really matter. Henry and Cat row across a lake to Switzerland and have an idyllic few months before tragedy strikes and the book ends.
The prose in the book isn’t the parody of telegraphic writing we’ve come to associate with Hemingway. It’s not exactly long-winded, but it does stop to take in the details of the front and of the Italian and Swiss countrysides. Cat is supposedly based on a real life paramour of Hemingway’s, a significantly older American nurse who helped him when he was wounded. Apparently, she agreed to marry him after the war but reneged and married someone else. Cat’s not an especially fleshed-out character and terrible tragedy befalls her. But that’s true of Henry and all of the other characters as well. The relationships are wartime relationships, intensely felt but short and often peremptorily cut off. I remember my grandfather, a WWII veteran, trying to find his buddies decades later. He often didn’t know last names — what was the point in the world of landing craft crews, made impermanent both by the whims of military bureaucracy shifting crews around and by death? In any event, the point seems to be that that’s life, for Hemingway’s generation and maybe for everybody.
Peter Berard, Ph.D., is a writer, historian and organizer in Watertown, Mass. He is San Antonio Review’s Book Review Editor.