Sunday, 12 December 2010
A Farewell To Arms
Ernest Hemingway joined the ambulance service in 1918 and saw action in Italy where he was wounded twice. Out of his experiences came ‘A Farewell To Arms’ a semi-biographical novel quite unlike anything I have read before.
This was my first Hemingway book and I must say I was very impressed. I had heard tell of Hemingway’s trademark ‘no frills’ style of writing, what you see is what you get and it is certainly true that Hemingway doesn’t waste pages and pages talking about a sunset or what a character is wearing. I found that once the story gets going you soon realise that underneath the deceptively straightforward surface of the story there is an incredible depth Hemingway leaves up to the reader to discover. I have never seen character development like it.
The story itself is bleak, which is to be expected from a story which takes part during the First World War however there is lots of humour too. The main character, Frederic Henry, is a dark horse. Not much of his personality is obvious at first glance but it's there if you look closely enough. Most of how he feels or what he is thinking is shown via his dialogue as his inner thoughts are rarely delved into.
One of Frederic’s most obvious characteristics is that he is an alcoholic. There is barely a page in the book when he is not drinking and he thinks nothing of drinking at the most inappropriate times such as early in the morning, when he is on duty and even when he is in hospital suffering with grievous wounds. In fact his drinking is so out of control he is almost reported for court martial when he suffers from jaundice as a direct result of his drinking. I am certain this obsession with alcohol is not a coincidence considering Hemingway’s own struggle with alcohol abuse. From reading other works of Hemingway heavy drinking is often a feature.
The characters in the book are first rate and easy to care about. Many of them are Italian and numerous glimpses are given into their personality, how they cope with war and what they think of it. This is particularly interesting to me as the Italian view of the First World War is not often portrayed.
The only character I did not appreciate was that of Frederic’s love interest, the English nurse Catherine Barkley. She played the role of a submissive, doting sexually driven young woman willing to do almost anything for Frederic. She whines a lot and demands constant reassurance from him. Initially she is not in the book too much but towards the end I found her presence a real drain.
The ending to the story is devastating but then this seemed appropriate considering the wartime setting, I am certain that re-reading this book (as I most certainly will) will reveal all sorts of hidden meanings I missed the first time around as Hemingway’s style is so deceptively simple.
A thoroughly enjoyable, meaningful book and an excellent introduction to Hemingway’s troubled genius.
Final verdict 4/5