Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Farewell to Arms (1929)

If a revisit to The Sun Also Rises was disappointing, A Farewell to Arms was worse. The only redeeming part of it, to at least start with the good, was the war scene of retreat and confusion in the last third, when our faithful narrator must finally jump into the river to escape. The love story I thought was hideous—juvenile, empty, unbelievable. If there are or were women like Catherine Barkley in the world, they are harder now for me to take seriously—that whole stoic, long-suffering, plucky figure seems to me mostly a relic of abandoned values and passé. Seems to be, let me say, as we know that all things pass and all things return again and that's how we do it. But in this post-feminist early 21st century a character like that seems to me irrelevant. The first time I read this, circa 1975, I found the ending moving and touching, and I should say that this time I was again affected by it. All sentiment, of course, because this time I also raged against it on another level—I mean, what obvious manipulative claptrap. He leaves the war, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Events defy belief. It's too much. In this novel over and over it is the silently suffering stoic, sucking it all up and never making a peep about the pain. People nowadays may talk too much about pain and emotions—but people of that age certainly did not talk enough. Thus A Farewell to Arms seems to me more than anything else just dated. War is hard, but this story is hard in remarkably uninteresting ways. There are numerous conversations here that include apologies for saying too much, requests to stop saying so much, etc. I like to think that this is all a thing of the past, but we'll know better a hundred years from now. Meanwhile, of course, there are the usual Hemingway strengths, such as they are, some I had not noticed before, or forgotten, such as the extreme brevity of the first chapter, which gives it the feel of a curtain-raising invocation, and brings a kind of initial high that I only wish had been merited by what follows.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Hey, Jeff, this is Richard Riegel, I wish I'd explored the internet more often and found your blog before now, as it's the kind of thoughtful, untweeted discussion I like to read. I might not know about your blog even now, if Scott Woods hadn't linked it in an item on recently. I've been even hungrier for this sort of blog since Rock's Backpages recently ended its Writers' Blog (to which I occasionally contributed), possibly because it was being taken over by some self-serving promo-men types for whom raw consumption was somehow a worthy intellectual ideal.

    That's all water over the blog now, and I'm glad I'll have "Can't Explain" to read from now on. Your list of topics over at the right, embracing literature and movies as well as pop music, is made to order for my own current interests. I appreciate your re-examinations of Hemingway a long interval after your initial readings of him, as I read most of his major novels in the 1960's, when I was in college, when some of my professors, as well as many current writers of the time, still considered him a Great American Novelist. But I've never felt any desire to go back to his books, and your recent reviews of "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Sun Also Rises" tell me just about what I would have expected of any re-readings, after having lived so long in the post-feminist eon. Thanks for saving me the wear and tear on my aging eyes.

    Interestingly, my favorite novelist when I was in college was Thomas Wolfe, who I'd just discovered via "Look Homeward, Angel" in Freshman English. Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway were all published by Scribner's in the '20s and early '30s, and Hemingway was insanely jealous of their common editor Maxwell Perkins giving any time (especially to Fitzgerald) rather than to him. In my maturity, such as it is, I regard Fitzgerald as the best writer of that trio, although I still love Wolfe the most, as despite his many (mostly verbose) flaws, he expressed an Art Deco style of literature in a way no other writer I've ever read has done. And as it happens, Thomas Wolfe was Jack Kerouac's favorite novelist when HE was in college.

    Speaking of modernist graphics of the period, thanks for sharing the original Art Moderne jackets (by designer Cleon) of Hemingway's two 1920's novels. I'm glad to look at them again any time. And keep up the good work on "Can't Explain" -- I'll be following it.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Richard, much appreciated! Thanks also for reminding me of Thomas Wolfe -- I read and liked very much You Can't Go Home Again many years ago and have always meant to get back to him.