(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
By Ernest Hemingway
Book #17 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Published in the late 1920s, right when Modernism was first starting to become a commercially successful form of the arts, A Farewell to Arms is Ernest Hemingway's wry and cynical look at World War I, the event that most defined not only his generation but also the beginning of the Modernist movement. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the book tells the story of Frederic Henry, known to most as "Tenente" (Italian slang for "Lieutenant"), a young and gung-ho American who couldn't get accepted by the American military during the war, so volunteered to be an ambulance driver for the Italian army instead. One of the first of Hemingway's tales to define the stoic "man's man" he would eventually become known for, the novel basically follows Tenente through a series of thrilling escapades, made even more interesting because of the main character not seeing them as thrilling at all -- nearly having his leg torn off while at the front, saving a man's life, escaping execution by diving off a bridge, a rowboat ride to Switzerland in the middle of the night while fleeing a group of pursuers, and a whole lot more.
Like I said, though, Hemingway's point here is not to glamorize war, but rather to highlight the mundane aspects of it all; the endless red tape, the weasely things people do to get out of actual work, the BS conversations that are always taking place among soldiers, all of them arguing over how the war is going but none of them actually possessing any factual information. At the same time, though, A Farewell to Arms is about the monstrous developments of World War I in particular, the very first large war to be fought during the Industrial Age, and therefore capable of inflicting so much more carnage than anyone thought possible. (For example, the brand-new European railway system is heavily featured throughout the book, and especially the fact that in a half-day's ride, you could go literally from the battlefront to a five-star luxury hotel, something that had never been possible before WWI.) Oh, and if all this wasn't enough, Hemingway throws in a love story too, a complicated one featuring a complicated woman, one that has been a source of heated interpretation since the book first came out 79 years ago.
The argument for it being a classic:
There seems to be two main arguments for this being a classic, one based on the author and one on the book itself. Because the fact is that Hemingway is considered by many to be one of the most important novelists in the history of that format, a fabled "High Priest of Modernism" who taught all of us to think in a punchier, shorter way, and with this mostly being for the better for the arts in general. Because let's not forget, a mere twenty or thirty years before this book was first published, it was actually the flowery and overwritten Victorian style of literature that dominated the publishing industry; and as we've all learned throughout the course of this "CCLaP 100" essay series, although Victorian literature certainly has its charms and inherent strengths, it's also a whole lot of talking to say not much at all, a situation that was starting to drive artists crazy by the time the 20th century got into swing. Hemingway, fans claim, was the first Modernist to really bring all the details together in a profoundly great way -- the first to combine the exciting rat-a-tat style of pulp-fiction writers with the weighty subjects of the academic community, producing work that owes as much to Raymond Chandler as it does to Virginia Woolf but is ultimately much better than simply reading those two authors back-to-back. And by making its subject World War I, fans say, Hemingway here turns in yet another great document of those times that the early Modernists were known for -- from The Great Gatsby to All Quiet Among the Western Front, it's hard for us to even think of the artists from the "Jazz Age" or "Lost Generation" or whatever you want to call it, without thinking of this globe-changing event that was so in the middle of it. There's a good reason, after all, that many consider A Farewell to Arms one of the greatest war novels of all time.
The argument against:
Of course, there are others who can't even hear the words "Ernest Hemingway" without automatically shuddering, again for a variety of reasons that even most of his fans admit hold at least some weight -- because he is overrated by the academic community, because his personal style is a hackneyed, easily parodied one, because his "man's man" shtick got real old real fast, because it's now inspired three generations of a--holes (and counting) to want to be bull-fleeing, cigar-smoking woman-haters too. At its heart, its critics say, A Farewell to Arms is an interesting-enough little ditty, mostly because Hemingway himself had some interesting little experiences during the war that he basically cribbed wholesale for the book; but then this story is covered with layer after layer of bad prose, macho posturing, and aimless meanderings that get you about as far away from a traditional three-act novel as you can possibly get. With Hemingway and his critics, it's never a case of "it's a good enough book but shouldn't be labeled a classic;" those who dislike him really dislike him, and wish to see his work removed from academic reading lists altogether. "classic" label or not.
So let me embarrassingly admit that this is actually the very first book by Hemingway I've ever read, and that I was hesitant going into it because of just the overwhelming amount of bad stuff that's been said about him over the decades; to be truthful, I was half-expecting a parody of Hemingway at this point, all little words and nonsensical sentences and dudes treating girls kinda like crap most of the time. And yes, the book does for sure contain a certain amount of all this; but I was surprised, to tell you the truth, by how how tight, illuminating, fascinating and just plain funny A Farewell to Arms turned out to actually be. Wait, funny, you say? Sure; I dare you not to laugh, for example, during the scene when a huge argument breaks out between two Swiss border guards over which of their two hometowns boasts better winter sports. ("Ah, you see? He does not even know what a luge is!") This is what makes it such an intriguing novel about war, after all, because Hemingway expertly shows just how many surreal moments there are during times of war as well, that "war" doesn't just mean the two lines of soldiers facing each other at the front but also an entire region, an entire industry, an entire population. Hemingway's World War I is not just seen from the smeared windshield of a battlefront ambulance, but from bored soldiers getting drunk in a quiet bunker, from weary villagers hoping there will be at least something left of their homes after the war is over, from armchair pundits recovering in crumbling veteran hospitals, arguing over which complicated international treaty sunk them all and which is going to save them. It's an expansive, multi-facted, sometimes highly unique look at a wartime environment, one that at least here in his early career (he published this when he was 30) belies all the complaints that have ever been made about his hackneyed personal style.
And as far as that love story in the middle of it all, and the repeated complaints about Hemingway's characters all being misogynists...well, maybe it was just me, but I found his Catherine Barkley to be the very model of a modern independent woman (or at least modern and independent in 1920s terms), a fiercely intelligent and cynical creature who expects the same from her lovers, even while realizing that such a man is destined to either die in the environment they're currently in, or survive just to become a bitter, angry a--hole later in life. The way I see it, Catherine is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation; she needs love and intimacy in her life as much as anyone else, and especially in her role as a risk-taking, thick-skinned nurse just a few miles from the battle's front, but also understands that Tenente is destined to befall one of the two fates just mentioned, thus explaining the curious push/pull emotions she has towards him and the way she treats him throughout the novel. It's a surprisingly sophisticated relationship at work, the same thing that can be said of the novel in general; I don't know about the rest of Hemingway's work (yet, anyway), but at least A Farewell to Arms turned out to be a surprisingly cracking read, not only a definite classic but just an all-around amazing book in general. It comes highly recommended today.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
In two Fridays: Candida, by George Bernard Shaw
In three Fridays: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
In four Fridays: Sexus, by Henry Miller