I have a tendency with money (whenever I do have money) to buy too many books. I don’t even read that often but I like buying books. So for this summer I plan on reading all the books I bought in the past two years and write a review for each and every one of them. We start off with one of Ernest Hemingway’s most acclaimed novels; A Farewell to Arms.
This novel is set during the first World War in the Italian Front. It follows a young Ambulance Driver for the Red Cross; an American named Frederic Henry. The character was studying Architecture in Rome when the War was called on so he decided to join the army; in this case the Italian Army.
The book is Semi-Autobiographic, Hemingway himself was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front- but he was nowhere near where the events in the novel take place. Like James Joyce, Hemingway had bad eyes. He was half blind in his left eye so he wasn’t fit to serve in the American army- so he opted to serve in the Red Cross to do his part.
It must have been a little heartbreaking for Hemingway not to be eligible for fighting, considering he’s a super macho guy and at the time I imagine he’d have thought that going to war was what made a man. He’d learn quite soon that War doesn’t make men, War makes monsters and reveals cowards- those that get away unscathed may still call themselves men but take no pleasure in it.
The story is from a first person retrospective account of the Ambulance Officer in question. It doesn’t deal a lot with action and violence, which is a little surprising considering it’s upheld to be one of the greatest novels the War incited. If anything it’s a mundane account of Hemingway’s own experiences. In which he spent most of his time driving around, helping the wounded and hanging out in the various towns they were stationed.
The story is divided up into Five different sections, referred to as Books. The first book opens with a description of an Italian village that Henry has been stationed in. It describes the Autumn road that the troops march down, the battle far away in the mountains and the canon fire heard regularly. But the thing about War is that the greatest casualties aren’t brought about by man, but rather by disease.
At the end of the first chapter Henry notes that around 8,000 Italian troops perished due to an outbreak of Cholera. He says that the numbers weren’t so bad. It quickly comes apparent that the War has taken a great tole on Italy, in which so many men and women have perished in the conflict. With the coming great depression it’s easy to see how Fascism was able to rise so easily.
The major critique I have about Hemingway is about the way he writes. Now I’m not saying that he’s a bad writer, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be that great or at-least he’s over-hyped. It took me a while to figure out why this entire book was so off and it occurred to me at around page forty; Ernest Hemingway doesn’t use verbs.
So say if you’re writing dialogue in a novel, you’d use an adjective to describe how the words are spoken. For example “Alright,’ he said begrudgingly” there’s none of that in the book. You have to interpret how the words are said by yourself based solely on their content and context.
He also has this tendency to be overtly simplistic with his prose, often using the same words in the same sentence. There’s little use of simile or metaphor to describe a scene, he never says “The road is dusty like a dry river bed” but rather “the road is dusty as it hasn’t rained in five weeks” do you understand?
The author is extremely detached from his work, which is fine for a journalistic piece (Hemingway was a Journalist) but it’s a little difficult to set up an action. An example can be seen when he’s talking about a scene in which a group of men are walking down a road and one of them get’s shot. The entire scene is described in this monotone prose that alleviates no excitement, no attachment to the narrative but gives a sense of puzzlement so the reader is like; “Oh…that just happened.”
There’s no real sense of urgency, it all feels too clinical. I guess that may have been deliberate on his part as it’s a retrospective narration, so Henry in this moment is retelling a story he has processed and grown numb to. But as a storytelling method it’s poor, as it sucks out all the drama. He’s a very stoic figure, which is another flaw in Hemingway’s works; the characters.
I’ve only read two other works of Hemingway’s; The Sun Also Rises and The Garden of Eden. Citing these two, it becomes quite apparent that a good chunk of Hemingway’s characters are very very similar to one another.
The protagonist, typically a man, is always presented as stoic in nature. There’s no real discernible personality, hell, there is no personality. They’re these quiet, emotionally detached, introspective thinkers who like to read and observe art and go hunting and drink excessively. They’re Hemingway.
Now writer’s are a terribly unoriginal and uncreative lot so obviously they’re going to create works based upon people they know and their own life experiences. Everyone does it, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the Lost Generation who doesn’t write books about themselves.
But the issue with Hemingway here is that he proclaims that when he writes he’s presenting a truth, and the truth he writes down he believes to be truer than what he remembers. But that’s not the case in his protagonists. You see the thing about Ernest Hemingway is this; he’s a raging ass-hole.
He is. He’s Misogynistic, Homophobic, a Racist Anti-Semite- but even glossing over that (and you shouldn’t really gloss over that) he’s still an ass-hole. He’s an adulterer, a bad father, an alcoholic, a backstabber, an attention whore, a vain and insecure piece of garbage. I know there’s an argument saying that people are a product of their time, but Hemingway is a timeless ass-hole.
The reason Hemingway’s characters are so stoic and bare of any discernible personality is because he is too afraid of presenting his soul to the world, he’s afraid of showing his petty flaws for all to see, immortalising it in ink. He presents a man who is relatively well rounded; humble, thoughtful, patient, kind. He creates a man that he wishes he was, he hadn’t the balls to portray himself.
Hemingway had a way of sabotaging his own relationships. That’s why Hemingway and Fitzgerald became little more than frenemies, that’s why he fell out with Gertrude Stein and the other Lost Generation and that’s why he burned through four different wives- because he is an incredibly broken and toxic person only capable of hurt and destruction. In the end, he destroyed himself.
The Italians in this book are pretty similar to eachother. None of the side characters have any real depth to them. The only characters with any semblance of a personality can be seen in the Young Priest who follows the regiment and gets harassed by other drunk Italians proclaiming to be smarter than him because they’re Atheist Whore Mongers.
The other can be seen in Henry’s roomate- the War Surgeon. An Italian named Rinaldi. Not to be confused with Ronaldo, the football megatstar who plays for Manchester United and Portugal. The latter part is a bit odd to me, why does Portugal have a team considering it’s not even a real country?
Now the thing about Rinaldi you need to understand, right from the bat, is that he is definitely one hundred percent totally not gay. Not gay at all, straightest man in Italy. Sure, there’s nothing Gay about constantly kissing and declaring your love for your room mate all the while referring to him as “baby” that’s just an Italian thing.
But besides the totally-not-gay Italian over here, the other characters are pretty bare. Almost all the characters are exhausted and at their wits end due to the War. They’re all against the entire debacle. Most wishing it would just be over all ready so they can go home, some even suggesting if they were given leave (it’s like a holiday) they may not come back. A few even state that they wish one side would just give up, even if it was there’s. They were so numb they couldn’t tell what would be worse; defeat or the War going on.
Now while this can create some excellent Anti-War sentiment, which I agree with, it doesn’t create a compelling drama. If everyone has the same opinions then there is no conflict, no urgency in the dialogue. And let’s face it, Hemingway can’t write dialogue for shit.
There’s something about this Generation that makes their stories so awkward. I kind of touched on it briefly in Gatsby, but there’s this particular scene in this novel that is both awkward and pointless. Henry receives a St. Anthony necklace from his girlfriend, he’s fiddling around with it in the ambulance. His colleague comments that he has one too, Henry then put it in his pocket, to which his colleague says “It’s better if you put it around your neck” to which Henry says “Alright” and does so.
What was the point of that??? We learn nothing other than what a St. Anthony necklace is and how much of a dumb fuck Henry is. Seriously, what serious editor read this and thought “Yep, we should keep that” fucking hell.
In the first chapter we see how the War effects the men. The Italian’s in Henry’s regiment take their frustrations out on the Priest and the whores they congregate that night. When Henry does his rounds in the ambulance he comes across a man who willingly gave himself a hernia by refusing to use preventive measures.
He wanted to get away from the front but he was afraid that his commanding officers would take notice of his self inflicted state, seeing as it was common practice. Instead of reporting him, Henry decides to help him by telling him to fall down on a rock so he can get a bump on his head. That way he’ll be sent to a hospital away from the front.
The novel does a good job of presenting the gradually decreasing Morale of the Italian Army and how the War has effected practically everything. An example of this can be seen when Henry is injured and heads to the hospital in Milan. The ambulance crew are amateurs at their jobs, causing him even more strife. The hospital is recently open and there’s only one nurse there, who is practically senile.
When he does see a doctor he’s misdiagnosed, stating that they must wait six months before the surgery to let the fluids get around the shrapnel in his knee. Fortunately Henry is wise enough to realise the benefit of a second opinion, so he gets another doctor who performs the surgery on the following day.
The reason Henry was injured in the first place was because he was shit by Mortar fire while trying to get him and his men a bit of cheese for their pasta. It’s similar to the tale of how Hemingway was injured only a few weeks into the job, in which he was hit by a mortar shell while trying to get some chocolates for his friends. Fortunately he saved his leg by getting an artificial knee but his friends died.
Henry is awarded a medal of honor, showing how truly pathetic this war really is.
At this time Hemingway fell in love with a nurse by the name of Agnes von Kurowsky. An American, just like he was. They’d planned on getting married, but Hemingway was sent back home to America and a few months later she broke up with him via a letter saying that she was engaged to an Italian (she’d never marry the Italian btw) it’s sad but that’s just how long distance relationships work; they don’t.
Agnes became the base of Henry’s love interest, Catherine Barkley. An English nurse who’d lost her fiance in the Battle of the Somme. She’d taken care of Henry while he was in hospital and they fell in love.
Probably one of the major criticisms I have about Hemingway is his female characters; particularly his love interests. From reading the two previous novels of his that I mentioned, it becomes increasingly apparent that Hemingway is attracted to this certain type of Woman and is immediately repelled by another.
You see, practically all of Hemingway’s female love interests are borderline neurotic. They’re depressed, submissive, overtly feminine characters that parallel to Hemingway’s supposed machismo protagonists. Now there’s nothing wrong with having neurotic characters, but when all of your characters are so goddamn similar- well, that’s just lazy writing.
Henry first meets Catherine when he tags along with Rinaldi, who at the time claims to be in love with her. Now he’s obviously not in Love with her, this generation used the term Love so loosely it caught Chlamydia. Just like Rinaldi. So Henry and Catherine hit it off, go on a few dates which is mainly used as a distraction for both of them away from the War.
Catherine asks for Henry to say that he loves her, he obliges, thinking that’ll help get him to stick it in. But she’s very cautious about physical contact. At first she doesn’t allow him to wrap his arms around her. When he tries to kiss her she slaps him and when she consents to a kiss she bursts into tears, obviously still not over the dead fiance. Henry assumes that she’s crazy, much to Rinaldi’s relief.
Now Henry was just looking for a quick pump and dump with this English Nurse, but God Dammit he started to like her. When he received his injury she was transferred to his hospital and they soon fell in love, proper love. They had a nice summer at it, but when his leg was all healed up he caught jaundice and spent three weeks in bed.
This part is actually funny, there’s hardly any humour in Hemingway’s work but apparently he was a very funny person. Now Jaundice is a condition caused by a variety of issues such as Malaria and some Cancers. It’s basically this yellow pigmentation of both the skin and the whites of the eyes, incredibly painful stuff. Enoch Powell caught it but sadly it did not kill him.
So what happens is that after a few days of being bed ridden with Jaundice, the Hospital’s superintendent comes into his room. Now both of them hated eachother since the day he was admitted, but she was was appalled to discover the amount of empty bottles of alcohol found in the room. She’d refused to serve him wine without the doctor’s order, so Henry paid the Porter to bring him beer and wine whenever he wanted.
And not even just regular wine- like some straight up nasty stuff like Whiskey and Gin and this weird Liquor you can only get in Russia and it’s sealed in a glass bottle shaped like a bear. The Superintendent says that she believes Henry drank so much just so he could catch Jaundice and thus keep away from the front. To which Henry responded “Have you ever admitted a man who kicked himself in the balls?”
Now Henry admits that he’s seen men self inflict injuries to get out of service, but to suggest that someone would willingly catch Jaundice is about as absurd as suggesting someone willingly hit themselves in the balls- no one would do that. But she didn’t buy it and he was sent to the front early, before his leg was fully healed.
This little bit was funny but it also highlight’s Hemingway’s own severe alcoholism. In every meal he’s drinking bourbon, whiskey, beer or wine. In the book he only drinks water once. He treats Water the same way Trump treats vegetables. But the truly astonishing thing about Hemingway is that he wasn’t even the drinking heavyweight of the Lost Generation. That title belonged to F.Scott Fitzgerald, who drank so much he got a hernia so bad that he couldn’t climb up stairs.
He drank so much he died at Forty. He made Hemingway look like a lightweight, Hemingway could drink James Joyce under the table and James Joyce was an alcoholic- by Irish standards.
Jesus Christ he’s handsome. You’d almost forget that he’s a complete piece of shit.
Anyway, Henry had a sad farewell-for-now to his girlfriend and fucked off back to the Italian front. Things had gotten worse since he’d left. Most of the troops were either dead or gone, leaving only Rinaldi to mock the priest at dinnertime. The Priest doesn’t even care anymore, he’d do anything to get things back to the way they were- even if it meant more open disrespect.
Morale was so low, even the Officers weren’t even up for the War anymore. Soon enough by Book Three the Battle of Caporetta occurs, which deals the greatest defeat for the Italian Army in their entire history. They’re forced into a retreat, Henry is tasked with transporting three ambulances to this town fifty odd miles away before the Austro-Hungarians are on them.
They’re oblivious to the fact that the Germans are the ones that handed them the defeat. The Austro-Hungarian Empire demanded some German support and despite some Generals being sceptical of the attack, the Germans obliged. They released a few cannon fires, shot some gas canisters down through the mountains and killed a fuck ton of Italians in the Valley.
That caused the retreat to commence. A long haul, Henry went hours on end barely moving an inch. He opted to use the back-roads for a short cut/avoid ambush, but he didn’t account for the heavy rainfall. The cars got stuck in the mud. When two engineers refused to help pull the car out, due to fear of being ambushed, Henry shot at them as they walked away.
He clipped one in the back but the other ran away. It may seem strange to most civilians why Henry would do such a thing, but you need to understand that Henry was the commanding officer and the Engineers disobeyed an order in a life or death situation. In their minds, this murder is justified.
One of the soldiers, Benito, requests to finish off the man on the ground. Henry obliges, hands him the pistol and Benito shoots the wounded man in the face- twice. War creates Monsters and reveals Cowards, in this case it created a Monstrous-Coward as shortly afterwards he’d desert his regiment in an attempt to surrender to the enemy and be taken as a prisoner.
The ambulances are stuck in the mud so they’re forced to abandon them and walk on foot to. Soon enough one of the soldiers is shot in the back of the head, not by the enemy but by the Italian rear guard. The soldiers have become increasingly paranoid due to the retreat and will shoot anything that moves; even if its an ally.
They eventually rejoin the rest of the Army but Henry is dragged away by soldiers who refer to themselves as the “Battle Police” what they’re basically charged with is finding traitors and deserters and spies and executing them. In this case they’re finding Officers detached from their regiments, questioning them and despite whatever answers, they will execute them on sight. It’s revenge against the retreat.
Henry being a Lieutenant, away from his Ambulance, is suddenly feeling a great deal of resentment to the war. At this point in time he begins to question whatever patriotism of ingenuity he thought he’d bring to this war but instead he decided “Fuck it, I’m running away” and so he jumps into the river, floats down stream and escapes.
He catches a train to whatever town Catherine is in, borrows some clothes from a friend and surprises her. At this moment she’s heavily pregnant with his Child. They hold up in the town for a while until the bartender, who they’ve befriended, warns them that the Military Police have arrived so they escape in the dead of night on a rowing boat and sail towards Switzerland.
Now I’m not an expert about Rowing, but the story says that the lake between this town in Italy and Switzerland is about thirty-five kilometres long. That’s longer than I think you can row in about one night. All the while Henry is drinking a fuck ton of whiskey with one bottle of water.
They eventually do reach Switzerland and miraculously they’re granted visas. Even though he’s a young man of military age, an obvious deserter and she’s a heavily pregnant English woman. But, they’re White and they have money so they’re grand. Good luck trying to pull that shit if you’re from Mali.
That’s also one of the main things that confuses me about this book; where the fuck did this cunt get all this money? He’s nineteen for Christ sake. He doesn’t work outside of the army, neither does she. Is he rich? Does he have savings? Is he living off that Army wage and if so why can’t the Army track him when he accesses his bank account? Why is it so easy to become a socialite?
Oh to be young and have plenty of money.
They hide out in Switzerland for a while. The fourth book is just them hanging about, drinking beer, playing cards, going to the shops- couple stuff. Around the fifth book things really take a turn for the worse as Catherine goes into labour. A very painful labour, possibly due to the fact that she’s been drinking in the hopes to “keep the baby small” as she has small hips.
The doctor opts for a C-Section. But the baby is a still born and Catherine suffers a number of haemorrhages until she dies. Henry keeps her company until she passes, and then walks back to his hotel in the rain. That latter part is very symbolic as Catherine expressed her fear in the rain since she was afraid that the rain brought death. The fear may have originated from the thought that it was probably raining very heavily in the Somme, where her fiance died.
It’s a sad tale. Two depressed lovers fall in love, War breaks them apart and one lover becomes a deserter. He’s become sickened and exhausted by the war, retreating away from the conflict- bidding A Farewell to Arms. But his desertion was for two reasons; for his own survival and his own love.
The latter was taken away from him. Hemingway was inspired by his own Wife’s C-Section to write this book when his first son was born. It must have been a punch in the gut for the kid when he read that part where Henry says that he felt nothing for his new born son, he blamed him for almost killing his mother. But both died soon enough.
Despite the characters Stoic nature, Hemingway ends up accidentally showing a bit of himself in small doses. When Catherine asks how the baby looks, Henry responds “Like a Skinned Rabbit” which is arguably the worst thing to say in such a moment and something Hemingway definitely said.
There’s the little bits of humour, that’s pure Hemingway. But there’s also that moment in which Catherine is talking about the Shakespearean character Othello, insinuating that Henry is similar to him but Hemingway simply retorts; “Othello is a Nigger” …I…I don’t know how to respond to that. I think Keegan Michael Key wouldn’t appreciate that very much.
Hemingway rewrote the ending for the novel thirty-nine times. Trying to get it jut right. My copy included all the endings. Most of them are similar enough. It simply has Henry go on about how sad life is, stating that he could go on about how Rinaldi was cured of Syphilis but found his skills as a war surgeon was made redundant in peace time. How some of his friends became fascists, traitors or immigrants in America. The most interesting in my opinion is that the Priest ended up living under Fascism, but the story was over.
It wasn’t a very good ending and I’m glad he threw it away. You should never have a character say “Well, a story has to end somewhere and so it is ending here” and that’s it. There’s some versions where he wakes up in the hotel room in the morning, briefly forgetting what had happened and there’s even one where the baby lives, but it’s even sadder as he blames the baby for the mother’s death and he has to find a way not to hate it.
I made a few errors in my previous articles, in which I stated that in this book the protagonist received an injury that caused him to become impotent. That only happened in the Sun Also Rises, it did not happen here. Something arguably worse happened.
What would be worse, getting your dick blown off or having the the love of your life and your infant child perishing tragically? I mean the latter is undoubtedly devastating, but you can get another family, you can’t get another dick. I don’t know, let’s leave it up to public opinion.
It’s a very sad tale, but the writing quality has drastically faltered from his previous work. I was more emphatically moved by his descriptions of the brutal torture and execution of a bull than I was by a mother and infant child tragically perishing in the inception of life. I guess that’s all you need to know about what I think of this book, but I recommend you read it regardless.