Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

After a brief "debate" at work about the relative merits of William Faulkner's versus Earnest Hemingway's writing styles, I decided to put Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms at the top of my reading list.

I was surprised by how little I enjoyed it.

Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea was really good and more recently I enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls.  But A Farewell to Arms was so stiff that I couldn't give a shit about any of the characters because they were unbelievable. Lt. Frederic Henry (the novel is set during WWI) was a drunken womanizer who deserted when times got tough (even though he was only an ambulance driver) but still took time to execute a soldier whose conduct he found lacking.  His love for nurse Catherine Barkley was equally shallow as demonstrated by emotional detachment at the novel's conclusion.

So I watched the 1932 movie starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper on YouTube hoping that their performances would show me what I missed.  With due respect to those two actors, sorry, nothing.

Farewell left me with impressions of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H but not in any significant way other than theme.  I was left more strongly with an impression of Michael Crichton - and not in a good way.  One of the first works that formed the basis of my love of reading was Crichton's 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain.  (The other was Always on the Run, the story of the Miami Dolphins' backfield tandem of Larry Czonka and Jim Kiick.  Really.)  But I digress.  At some point Crichton started writing screenplays, not novels.  Farewell was similarly thin.

Certainly, Hemingway's spare style is replete with rich imagery (which is, of course, a reason for his greatness as a writer).  One quote that stood out for me involves a soldier bleeding to death in an ambulance. Describing his blood, Hemingway wrote "The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone."

So, let's put on the smarty-pants hat and do the literary criticism thing.  Noting that the title is A Farewell to Arms and not A Farewell to War or A Farewell to Death one might be tempted to say that Hemingway realizes that although one may give up war making (i.e. "arms"), attempting to put death behind you is futile.  The novel's title is taken from a George Peele poem of the same name, but I can't find any common sentiment between the two works.  Peele wrote "Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen; Duty, faith, love are roots, and ever green." A lovely sentiment, but not demonstrated by Hemingway's characters.

As with any audiobook, the voice actor can influence the experience.  Because the book is already back at the library I can't cite the actor's name, but his inflectionless, staccato delivery mimicked how you'd parody a film of that vintage.  Certainly, he didn't help convey whatever Hemingway was trying to say.  Maybe the actor didn't get it either.


Chris said...

But were you forced to pull out a dictionary in this one?

John said...

I don't usually use a dictionary with Faulkner either.