Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Life During Wartime

In a project like this, you know that there will be books and movies that don’t do it for you. I swore I’d be honest about that. I just didn’t think that moment would come so soon.

Earlier, I made the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never read any of Ernest Hemingway’s longer work. A sly anonymous commenter suggested The Old Man and the Sea, a “literary purgative” that would “get that crazy little hankering for Hemingway right out of (my) system.”

Well, Mr. or Ms. Smartyboots, you weren’t the first person to deliver that heads-up. I’d already decided not to start there. I also opted not to rush pell-mell into the work that interested me the most, his account of the “lost generation” The Sun Also Rises.

Instead, I went with 1929’s A Farewell to Arms, widely regarded as one of the finest novels of World War I.

I admired the book enormously. I just didn’t care for it.

Frederic Henry, a volunteer in the Italian Army, falls in love with Catherine, an English nurse, as he convalesces from injury. The twinned experiences of love and war reveal a great deal of life to him, perhaps too much for such a young man.

Papa, naturally, is at his best depicting the camaraderie forged between men in battle, and the deep thoughts that war provokes:

“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity ... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of regiments and the dates.”

But that insistence on simplicity, which has the formal elegance of Shaker furniture in the Nick Adams stories, becomes constraining in longer work. At times Hemingway seems not to trust words, repeating humble nouns as if hoping to grant them the power of an incantation. In “Big Two-Hearted River” it worked, and it does here when Hemingway allows the language to take on a Joycean* rhythm of its own:

“Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside, alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.”

Over the length of a novel, though, the repetition is numbing.

My lukewarm reaction to A Farewell to Arms stems mainly from two other factors. The tragic climax is obvious from the outset, yet manages to feel tacked on. And Catherine never registers as a character, muting what little impact the ending had.

Not an ideal reading experience. But I’ve finally absorbed some Hemingway and developed a few opinions of my own about him, which is the point of the exercise. I still plan on reading The Sun Also Rises. I even intend to tackle The Old Man and the Sea. But I’m in no hurry to do so.

*Bonus Shame-Faced Admission™: I haven’t read any Joyce, either. I just think I know what he sounds like. Will this posing never end?


Blogger Romy said...

If you’re not into the whole repetition thing, I would advise you to stay away from Hemingway’s pal Gertrude Stein, who taught Papa a thing or two about incantation.

2:59 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Upon reflection, I'm actually glad you steered clear of The Old Man and the Sea, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten to see your summation of your opinion of A Farewell to Arms: admirable, but not particularly likeable. Very apt. That was my reaction to it as well, anyway. I desperately wanted to feel that for The Sun Also Rises, too. So I stopped reading after fifteen pages. I'll just carry on with my shame-facedness there.

When I think about it, my reaction to Hemingway is similar to my reaction to D. H. Lawrence. I'll be curious to see what you make of that giant when you get to him as well! You mention Joyce, though; him, I will devour whole-heartedly. Well. His short stories, anyway. I kind of like to just stare at random pages of Ulysses in a sort of terrified awe.

Ms. Smartyboots

11:31 PM


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