Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway
London, Arrow Books, 2004, 293p

This is a rather delayed write up, considering I actually read this novel about a month ago for the second of our staff book club meetings - a lovely gathering to discuss Hemingway. Last time, we realised that none amongst us had read the American great before, so we set out to rectify this!

Frederic Henry is an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during World War One. On a simple level, A Farewell to Arms is about Henry's love affair with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley; but that is only one small part of this novel. It is a vivid story about conflict, masculinity and the beauty of Italy.

Having read so much children's literature recently, Hemingway's prose was initially somewhat hard to get into; but as I read on, I found myself engrossed in the long, descriptive passages and the conversational style. What I particularly enjoyed was the fact that he did not indicate who was talking in sections of dialogue, leaving it up to you to work out who was saying what. As I got to know the characters better I could work out who was talking by their style of speech and the voices I had created for them in my mind.

This is not a particularly action-packed novel. Sometimes, when people were killed, it took a moment for me to realise because nothing was written literally. The realities of war felt distant from the protagonists, as if they could protect themselves by blocking out the death and devastation around them.  

In terms of the plotting, this novel is a perfect model of realist writing - opening a window into the life of a soldier, viewing for a short while, and then closing. More modern fiction tends to be preoccupied with the psychology of the characters, embedding flash backs to contextualise their childhood. I found myself wondering how Henry had ended up in Italy, and Hemingway never satisfied my curiosity, but I really appreciate this. Instead, A Farewell to Arms presented me with a perfect snippet of the lives of Frederic and Catherine.

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