Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiographical novel drawn from Ernest Hemingway's experiences in Italy during World War One.

Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American, is an ambulance driver with the Italian army, based in a little town called Gorizia. There he meets and falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a nurse at the local hospital. The two themes explored in the book are love and war; and with Henry and Catherine, one is inseparable from the other. Henry describes his war experiences with an aloof and almost brutal honesty. He spends his nights at the public house for the officers, drinks when he can and goes into the war with a sort of unemotional stolidity. He is in the war and yet he is far from it. Henry is a man who has realized that he is fighting someone else's war and yet he goes on because he simply must. His seeming indifference about the war is at direct odds with the strength of his emotions for Catherine. The two begin a tumultuous love affair where they cling to each other with increasing desperation as the book progresses. This is an intense love story set against the backdrop of a war that the common man simply did not seem to interested in fighting.

An excerpt from one of Henry's conversations with the priest on the disposition of the Italian Army: "They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.”

I came away from the book not having any concrete opinion on either Henry or Catherine. They are not very inspiring and do not seem to possess many redeeming qualities and yet, their story moves you because it is, if you look at it, a study of a society gripped in uncertainty. Perhaps, with Henry who is wounded unexpectedly in the trench mortar shelling, and Catherine who is mourning the death of a former lover, being faced with their own mortality is what propels them towards each other. They constantly have to will themselves to be happy and while their love might have been true it seems fragile, insecure and like a reaction to the war and ravage around them.

Consider what Catherine Barkley tells Henry, "You don’t have to pretend you love me. But I do love you." Catherine is haunted by the fear that if she does not mold herself to Henry's wishes, she would lose him. She doesn't want to consider herself as a separate entity; Henry seems to be the only tangible thing in her world. Right from the beginning, their relationship is fraught with an impending sense of doom and is felt in Henry's words towards the later stages of the book, "We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both the feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together."

The story of Henry and Catherine is distinct in the fact that it is quite subversive and yet traditional. They perhaps epitomized the emotions of the multitude facing the "war to end all wars" at a time when the west was poised on the brink of great cultural change. Read Henry's and Catherine's story without any illusions and with the understanding that there were probably many Frederic Henrys and Catherine Barkleys whose stories we will never know.

My very first Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms had me in an iron grip from start to finish and less than half way through the book I was a Hemingway convert. The writing is magnificent, with the kind of uncompromising spareness that confronts you with the war and the conflicting emotions that go with it. Frederic Henry is said to have been modeled on Hemingway himself and Catherine Barkley on Agnes Von Kurowsky, the twenty six year old nurse that the eighteen year old Hemingway met during his convalescence in Milan. Agnes went on to become Hemingway's first love only to eventually break up with him citing the difference their ages as one of her reasons. Hemingway was never quite purged of his feelings for Agnes and her memory was to stay with him for the rest of his life. You can read her farewell letter to Hemingway here.

Hemingway on being wounded in WWI, "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you ... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you."

This is a link to a website about Ernest Hemingway if anyone is interested. You can also check out information on Hemingway's house in Key West, where he is said to have finished A Farewell to Arms, here.

I have included pictures of Anges Von Kurowsky in her nurse's uniform in Milan, of Hemingway in his WWI uniform, of the both of them together and Hemingway at a later date, all sourced from various websites. If there are any copyright violations, please let me know, I will remove them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell moved from England with his eccentric, oh! so eccentric family to Corfu, an island in Greece. He spent almost all his time exploring the island and making nice with it. His experiences on Corfu eventually took the form of the autobiographical novel, My Family and Other Animals.

Here is a teaser:
"This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals."

Let me tell you right away that I absolutely adored this book; and if it hadn't been for Urbi Chatterjee of The Bootle Bum Trinket I wouldn't heard about this probably for a really long time.

Gerald Durrell with his family captures your imagination right out and what ensues is many hours of enjoyment getting acquainted with the Durrells and their singularly funny experiences in Greece. I loved the family (in fact I wish I could adopt them; please don't ask me for an explanation, it is just one of those things) and the dogs Roger, Widdle and Puke and Dodo; I loved The Magenpies (curious aren't you? Ain't telling. Now you have GOT to read the book); I loved Achilles the Tortoise and Quasimodo. I loved the gecko (shudder) and the mantid that fight a deadly turf battle on Gerry's bedroom wall. And then there is Spiro and Lugaretzia and Theo and Peter. The book brims over with lives; human and otherwise.

The family to the most part take Gerry's menagerie of animals in their stride but the moments in the book when they are troubled by a somewhat belligerent animal that Gerry has acquired are laugh-out-loud funny. And even though you are Team Gerry, you can't really blame the others for wanting to strangle his "pets" at times. Larry with all his pomp and bossiness gives you many reasons to grin; Leslie manages to find a soft corner in your heart with his guns and barrels and smoke; Margo, well, at her you just shake your head now and then because she is not good for much else except sun bathing. And Mrs. Durrell! That woman was a star! She steers her jigsaw puzzle of a family with admirable skill; she is unfazed by the scrapes they get into and gets into their lives and their little doings with an alacrity that is beautiful to behold.

Gerry's book is a testimony to his life and just a glimpse into what was actually a lifelong love and effort to nurture what he called "the little brown jobs" and "small uglies". All sorts of troubles tend to go up in smoke when you are in Corfu with Gerry and Company, so I strongly suggest that you get yourself a fix.

You can visit the The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust's website here. There is also a Dodo Club for kids. I can feel a visit to Jersey on the Channel Islands coming. Thank you Mr. Durrell, I was transformed into that grinning, at-peace-with-the-world-creature that only animal books/movies can induce in me.