Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Walking through Italy

So, in my first ever "Make Me Read" poll, you all chose for me to read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms over Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I must admit that I was a bit surprised; for some vague reason I thought you would all select the Plath book, but it was Hemingway by a wide margin.

Before this, I had only read Hemingway once, and that was way back in high school when one of my teachers (I can't even remember which one) assigned The Old Man and the Sea. I don't remember my impressions of that book, except that even then I noticed Hemingway's sparse literary style and bare-bones approach to telling a story.

Farewell is autobiographical in nature: it tells the story of an American soldier in World War II who is wounded and falls in love with one of his nurses, as actually happened to Hemingway himself. The real-life drama, of course, turned out differently than does the tale in Farewell, at least so far as I know. But it's not hard to see how the state of affairs at the end, as Frederic Henry walks back to his hotel, could lead him to a long life of depression and eventual suicide – the path that Hemingway himself would follow. Of course, that wasn't Hemingway's thought when writing Farewell, as he published it in 1929, when he still had more than thirty years of life ahead of him.

One thing that often bothers me when I read a work of classic literature is that since the work is a classic, familiarity is often assumed, even by the books themselves. I have a feeling that I would have found Farewell a bit more involving, and effective, had I not already been informed by the dustjacket blurb that the novel is a tragedy, focusing on the "doomed" affair between Frederic and Catherine. I suppose most people who haven't read Hemingway are supposed to know that he's not the sunniest of writers, so this is to be expected, but as it was, I kept reading the book with a sense of impending doom that I'm not entirely certain Hemingway intended. Nevertheless, that tragic outcome really is terribly sad, when it arrives. It's an interesting kind of tragedy, totally different from Greek tragedy (where everything is already ordained by the Fates) or Shakespearean tragedy (where tragedy unfolds from fatal character flaws). No, Hemingway's tragedy is the more mundane sort, which makes it doubly haunting: Hemingway's tragedy is nothing more than the observation that we live in a world where awful things happen for no particular reason at all.

For the first two-thirds of the book, the love affair between Frederic and Catherine proceeds along nicely enough, along with the travails of a soldier at war. It's only in the last third of the book that the affair becomes torrid, at the same time that the war becomes well and truly insane. The last third of the book is harrowing, starting with the breakdown in the Italian army and the insanity that soon grips everyone, even as the war itself is dying down. Frederic's escape from the Italians, after he's been marked to be executed, and his subsequent escape with Catherine are all gripping episodes, but it's in the final chapters that we learn that all has been for naught anyway.

Here is a quote that stood out to me, when I got to it. Frederic Henry ruminates a bit after someone protests that the Italian war effort "cannot have been in vain":

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and
sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes
standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words
came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by
billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen
nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the
sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with
the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand
to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers
were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places
were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as
glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of
villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of
regiments and the dates.

Thanks to my readers for having chosen A Farewell to Arms. I'm glad I read it.


Thee earl of obvious said...

How many TA's and teachers would, if unaware that this was a passage by Hemingway, have a field day with their red pen on this passage alone? Commas galore, sentences that are too long and points not made quickly enough.

Even if the structure was tolerated I think all too many in the ivory tower would dismiss the point as without merit.

Thee earl of obvious said...

Sometimes I try to understand passages by illustrating them with my own characters:

A young man is living as an expatriate working for a Fortune 500 company in Vietnam while his wheel chair bound uncle back home reflects on the war.

Deception must be perpetuated lest it die a death based on shame and humiliation. The words sacred, glorious and
sacrifice are part of this perpetuation of deception. How else could we convince young men and women to give their lives over countless generations to causes that are all too often inconsequential to those who give the biggest sacrifice?

I suppose the only thing worse is to denounce the sacrifice as in vain.