I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway before, partly because he’s one of those classic authors I’ve always felt intimidated by, but when I was offered a review copy of this beautiful new hardback edition of A Farewell to Arms (with a cover image replicating the original 1929 cover and lots of additional material) it seemed a perfect opportunity to give one of his books a try.
A Farewell to Arms is narrated by Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver who is serving as a Lieutenant (or ‘Tenente’) in the Italian army during the Italian Campaign of World War I. Early in the story he meets a British nurse, Catherine Barkley. When Henry is injured by a mortar shell he has to spend some time in hospital and during this period his relationship with Catherine develops. What will happen when it’s time for him to return to the front? Part love story, part war story, this novel is based on Ernest Hemingway’s own experiences in the Italian ambulance corps where, like Henry, he was injured and fell in love with one of the nurses at the hospital. The fact that the story is semi-autobiographical gives it a realistic, unsentimental feel.
Hemingway’s writing style is very simple and direct, he gets straight to the point and avoids flowery language and long, detailed descriptions (though he still manages to choose just the right words to evoke the settings he is writing about). You might think that such plain, simple prose would be easy to read but for me, the opposite was true; it was distracting and it took me a long time to get used to it. Some passages are written in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, which is something I often struggle with, and there are also lots of very long sentences consisting of a string of short clauses all joined together by the word ‘and’. His writing is very distinctive and you’ll either like it or you won’t.
Hemingway rarely tells us anything that is not completely essential to the plot and so I finished the book feeling that I never really got to know either Henry or Catherine – neither of them are described in any great detail, we are only given very basic information about their backgrounds, and we aren’t even told the narrator’s name until several chapters into the book. Instead it is left to us to read between the lines, work things out for ourselves and use our imagination, and I think it’s intentional that we are told so little about the lives of Catherine and Henry before the war. However, the fact that the characters were not fully fleshed out meant that Catherine in particular didn’t feel like a real three-dimensional person; I liked her, but seen through Henry’s eyes she was very sweet and submissive, and it would have been nice to have had more insight into her personality.
Frederic Henry’s narrative style is detached and factual, almost as if things are happening at a distance and as if he sometimes feels very disconnected from the events going on around him. This works though, because it helps to portray the futility and harsh reality of war, and it reflects the way Henry feels; he is a person who has seen so many terrible things they no longer have such an emotional effect on him. The problem with the combination of terse writing style and detached narrative voice is that it made it hard for me to form any kind of emotional attachment to the characters, but the story was still quite poignant and moving in places, especially the final chapter.
Apparently Hemingway wrote the ending of the book thirty-nine times before he was satisfied with it. This new edition of the book includes an appendix with the text of all thirty-nine different endings. I read some of them, though not all (I think this type of supplementary material might be of more interest to someone who is studying Hemingway or considers themselves a fan of his work rather than to a first-time reader like myself) and although I did like some of the alternate endings, in my opinion the one he finally settled on was probably the right choice. I had tears in my eyes at the end and I’ve always thought that if an author can make me cry he or she must have done something right!
I’m not sure if I’ll want to read more Hemingway novels in the future but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to try this one and have now had some experience of an author I had heard so much about.
Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy of A Farewell to Arms