Monday 8 October 2012

A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway, 1929
(September 2012)

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

So yeah, pretty bleak stuff from start to finish. Not a nice finish, either. Really could have timed that one better, on a personal level.

Spoilers. If you care. And given this book’s more than eighty years old, if you do care about spoilers at this point I can't begin to imagine how frustrating your entire existence must be.

Catch-22 without the laughs. The baby dies, she dies, they all die. It’s war, of course they all die. Though the war doesn’t actually feature all that much. I think the protagonist only gets caught up in the direct fighting once, then spends the rest of the book falling love with a woman who, from a modern perspective, seems a bit slow in the head.

That’s the thing about reading books this old without a gloss, it’s kind of hard to tell what’s down to a society close enough to what we know now but still obviously distant, and what’s down to the writer's personal foibles. To what extent is Catherine’s endless insistence that everything is ‘fine’ a product of the time or of the author? That word gets bandied about so often I felt like I was back teaching in Junior High School (“I’mfinethankyouandyou?”).

All that aside, this is a brittlely beautiful book. This is the first Hemingway I’ve ever read. I was expecting the machismo and misogyny and gallons of booze. I wasn’t expecting it to be so bleakly sentimental, and I wasn’t expecting to care nearly as much as I did.


  1. Oh I can't imagine reading Hemingway anymore. Read too much Hemingway (i.e. more than any one book), including this, when I was a disturbed teen and found it meaningful then, which says as much about me then as his writing. I, however, grew up.

    As you allude to, he couldn't write women at all. His personal life accords with this. Don't think I could write women much either, but I am wise to this. I also found a way to have a personal life: more control of my narcissism than he. Of course, I never become a famous writer...

    If someone thinks Hemingway is a masculine writer, point them at 'Blood Meridian'.

  2. I always really enjoyed Hemingway, probably a little more genuinely than ironically... but now that you have a sense of his writing style, you should watch Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. He shows up as a character, and is my favorite part of the movie.

  3. Hmmm... Now I actually feel slightly ashamed for actually never reading a Hemingway book, maybe it's something I should do something about at some point...

    I just don't understand how you find the time to go through so many books a month? Is it the train?

  4. I've never read a Hemingway book either, maybe I will one day. I too have been wondering about the same thing as Mr. Salaryman.

  5. Hemingway… oh, man, we had to go and read a little Hemingway on our down time on the train, didn’t we?

    “Well, uh…”

    Now that you’ve started, the means you’ll just have to see what he’s all about. So simple. Yet so deep.

    But before drifting out with The Old Man and the Sea, you might want to practice a little, cross a river or two, run with the bulls, maybe even try your hand at playing hero while burning a bridge, before that journey out on a boat with the fisherman.

    “Indian Camp” is a good place to start. From there, maybe jump forward to that one with the title that starts out, “The Short Happy Life”… start out with the little steps, take on a lion before daring to go for a run with the bulls in The Sun Also Rises.

    Then you will be ready to meet the hero, Robert Jordan, in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

    “Say wha…?”

    It’s only a recommendation. If you are going to do Hemingway, that is what I would recommend. No gleaning stuff the Internet either. Read ‘em all, then find out the nit n’ grit, criticism, praise, blah, blah, blah….

    Reading Hemingway kind of gets a person to stop, think, and then kind of wonder about people. And maybe want to go trout fishin’ at least a few more times before kicking the bucket.


    Death in the Afternoon... as I have not read it, I will not say anything or pretend to know about the Wiki entry that goes something like this, "On his first day in Milan, he was sent to the scene of a munitions factory explosion where rescuers retrieved the shredded remains of female workers. He described the incident in his non-fiction book Death in the Afternoon: 'I remember that after we searched quite thoroughly for the complete dead we collected fragments'."


  6. This was part of our set reading at high school. I had a great teacher, and this was a good book for bringing up the whole "the only good woman is a dead woman" theme discussion. I do remember being moved by it, though. The rain, the rain. :'(

  7. Blimey, thanks for all the comments. Maybe I should do more 'worthy classics'. I actually quite liked this in terms of style, but I think Hemmingway's definitely something I'd have to be in the mood to read more of (as opposed something I read to improve my mood). I normally think long sentences tend towards the unreadable and showing off, but they worked very nicely here.

    I think one of his collections is called 'In The Company of Men' or something. Given his issues with writing women (and homoerotic subtext aside) that might be worth looking at next.

    I've touched on this before, but I'm not sure I do get through that many books. Certainly not compared to some other book bloggers that I read. A standard 300 page novel probably takes about 6-7 hours to read, which over a week isn't that much at all. Trains, yeah, also after putting the kid to bed. 30 minutes here and there, it all adds up.

    Also bear in mind that, for one reason and another, and writing this blog aside, it's pretty much the only leisure activity I'm doing right now. Hence the group reply (apologies). I've given up on Japanese TV and everything else demands an uninterrupted time commitment I can't make right now. Note the time I'm posting this comment and the ones on the last post...

  8. I will giva nod to Hanlon (I ain't trying to spell that name)
    Hemingway was thankfully a 1 time requirement and he could not relate to women in anyway similar to me but maybe like my parents divorced.

    It's a good reflection of it's time as most folks could estimate about when it was originally written.

    1. I normally just go with 'Ant', which seems to be acceptable ;)

      Yeah, definitely 'of it's time', but hard to tease that out from the personal attitudes of the author without knowing a good deal more about both. About 20 pages from the end someone gets described as a 'nigger' and after all the obvious elisions to cover less racially charged swearwords it's so unexpected as to be genuinely shocking. To my contemporary wishy-washy lefty sensibilities, at least.

    2. Guys, just copy/paste 'Ἀντισθένης'. Anyway, here's the Wikipedia entry: