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.


Rajarshi Chattaraj said...

'A farewell to arms' is just another example of Hemingway's powers of description and poignance. Your review expounds it well. But if this is your first Hemingway, then do make haste and read 'The Old Man and the Sea'. I assure you it shall be one of the greatest literary experiences of your life.

Rajarshi Chattaraj said...

By the way, have you come across the poem whose title Hemingway uses for his novel? Its by George Peele, an English dramatist. It is beautifully relevant :

Suko said...

I read this too many years ago. Your post reminds me that it is time for a reread. Wonderful presentation.

Veens said...

Wow, lovely review. You really make me want to pick this one up immediately! I love the quote that you have added about the peasants and the young soldier and thank you for the links. I am going to check out the Farewell letter :)

Bedazzled said...

awesome review,Vaishnavi. Havent read anything by Hemmingway.
I am going to pick this one up.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You absolutely must try Hemingway's For whom the bell tolls, Vaishnavi. It's in the same broad genre. Then tell me which one moved you more.

But I shall still say that for sheer emotive power among the same sort of books (World War I background, too), I have read nothing in my life that can beat Erich Maria Remarque's trilogy, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, and The Three Comrades.

This much I shall say: having read literature in eight languages for forty odd years - they don't know how to write like that any more.

Avid Reader said...

I’d never read that letter from Agnes to Hemingway. I’m so glad you shared that. I read this book a few years ago and didn’t love his portrayal of women. I’ve really enjoyed other books by Hemingway, but this one didn’t click for me. Now I wonder if he wrote it in this way because with Agnes he was the one who was more in love, so in his novel he made the female character the more “in love” one, interesting. Great review!

Brenna said...

Wow what a great review. I've only read the Sun Also Rises by Hemmingway, and have The Old Man and the Sea on my TBR pile. A Farewell To Arms sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

SoulMuser said...

Ah! I really must begin a Hemingway. I have this book, but for some reason I am rather daunted by it. Is the writing easy enough? Of course, Hemingway must be the master of his craft - I had visited his childhood home in Chicago, and I was thinking then I should have read his books before visiting it! Thanks for the review. :-)

Anonymous said...

I remember reading this book and loving it. But then I love all Hemingway. But his books are almost always sad...You should also try For Whom the Bell Tolls. It's really good!

I love your in-depth review, with the photos. Lovely reading :)

Anonymous said...

hey, long time, no see?
hope all fine...

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Thanks, Vaishnavi, for this lovely review, the pictures that you must have found with much effort, and the links.

What I find most interesting about Hemingway is that beneath his unemotional, almost cynical stolidity (to borrow your words), there is something extremely fragile in his stories and novels. It is true for this book and also for "The Sun Also Rises".

Since you have mentioned The Farewell ... was your first Hemingway, I would urge you to read The Old Man and the Sea. I've read it many a time and this one book has changed me, made me a stronger individual than what I had been.

Avinash S Bajaj said...

I love this quote from the book too: "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.”

It's funny that both of us have slightly different perspectives on the same book. For me, I was a lot more invested in Frederic Henry's story and Catherine was just a part of his story, rather than seeing Frederic and Catherine as one entity throughout the book.

This was my first proper Hemingway as well, and I was pleasantly surprised what an easy read it was, considering this is a literary classic (which have the impression to be complicated reads sometimes).

Very well written review and perspective!