Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I don't know much about World War I. This is what comes to mind:
  • poison gas
  • Ottoman empire
  • Austro-Hungary
  • Archduke Ferdinand
That is the extent of the contents of the catalog in my brain under the heading "World War I." I bet a lot of people know that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was one of the events that led to WWI, but I bet most don't know why. Similarly, I think 99% of American schoolchildren can name Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin, but few can explain what a cotton gin is. All I know is that it was a machine that revolutionized the cotton industry. I'm envisioning a massive robotic machine with many metal arms, propelling itself through cotton fields plucking cotton bolls at breakneck speed. But that can't be right. And I can’t explain the significance that the death of Archduke Ferdinand had on the world, either.

One of the most famous books to come out of World War I was A Farewell to Arms. Set in Italy during the war, AFtA was inspired by Hemingway's service as a Red Cross ambulance driver attached to the Italian army. This book has been sitting on my shelf for about 15 years, ever since I saw In Love and War, starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell. [That movie marks the second occasion I saw a man's naked bum, the first being Kevin Costner's in Dances with Wolves. Also, I have a dim recollection of looking into the locker room at the fieldhouse and seeing a few naked football player butts. These are the images that are emblazoned on my mind from childhood.]

So after more than a decade on the shelf (I can't believe I'm old enough to start saying things like that) and now that I'm completely intrigued by Hemingway, I picked it up. His plots don't totally hook me and I don't think that every word is extraordinary. But I'm reading, reading... and then: wow. A few words put together in the perfect way and I'm repeating the sentence over and over in my head all day. His spare use of language creates some scenes of powerful emotion. And maybe his tortured existence helped inform his writing. He does well transcribing desire, helplessness, jealousy, passion, and insecurity onto the page. I imagine Hemingway as a hot-blooded, tormented artist, capable of both extreme joy and deep desolation. And I think that is reflected here.

The love scenes between Lieutenant Frederic Henry and his lover, an English Red Cross nurse, are lovely and passionate, conveying profound meaning in few words. Frederic’s description of pulling the hairpins from Catherine's hair and letting it fall down around them both like a curtain is incredibly sensual and beautiful. I felt like I was invading on such a private moment that I think that I almost blushed. The scene is so much more sincere because it is discreet and vague. Less is definitely more in this instance.

After finishing AFtA, I still don’t know much about WWI. But I’ve felt, through Hemingway's words, the helplessness, the terror, the uncertainty, the tragedy of war. The importance of knowing that there is a person who is home to you, waiting for you, beyond the chaos.

A good quotation:

"Hell," I said, "I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?"
"Yes. I want to ruin you."
"Good," I said, "that's what I want too."

I love his long sentences connected by and. Here are a few I particularly liked:

"...and we would drink the capri and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet and the whole night and we would both love each other all night in the hot night in Milan."

...and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet... LOVE that.

"...and I would take out the pins and lay them on the sheet and it would be loose and I would watch her while she kept very still and then take out the last two pins and it would all come down and she would drop her head and we would both be inside of it, and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls."

And this is how I feel about being with Nathan:

"Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others."