Monday, December 22, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 3

The first four chapters of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

I’ve never read A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t particularly regret that. I read The Sun Also Rises and a bunch of Hemingway’s short stories back when I was a teenager. I’ve never felt a pressing need to explore much further, partly because his trademark style has been beaten to death by so many inferior writers, and partly because even Hemingway’s use of it bothers me over the course of hundreds of pages. The style is rightly referred to as stripped down, but that belies the sense of bombardment one feels when faced with page after page of a rhythm like this: “Now the fighting was in the next mountains beyond and was not a mile away. The town was very nice and our house was very fine.” And: “When I came back to the front we still lived in that town. There were many more guns in the country around and the spring had come.”

These are not bad sentences. In fact, the last of them features a jarring juxtaposition that’s all the more jarring for being plainspoken. Which is to say, it probably works exactly as Hemingway wanted it to work, and that’s no small feat for any sentence. Still, styles of writing can be said -- among other things -- to differ based on the type of thinking they want to convey or inspire, and Hemingway’s staccato prose makes me feel trapped in a kind of thinking that feels claustrophobic, too stripped down. That’s undoubtedly part of the point, but I can’t feel too bad about not being naturally drawn to it.

So, for this first installment of the Two Readers Project that involves reacting to a very small part of a larger whole (a larger whole I haven’t read), I’m tempted to just say, in my own terse fashion: “Yes. This is Ernest Hemingway.”

But it’s not that simple. As the book moves away from its descriptive start (the Italian front during World War I) and begins introducing characters and their dialogue, the bombardment lessens. In fact, Hemingway is terrific with dialogue. Take this scene, in which the narrator, Frederic, is speaking with Miss Barkley, a nurse whose boyfriend of eight years was killed in the Somme:
“It’s a silly front,” she said. “But it’s very beautiful. Are they going to have an offensive?”


“Then we’ll have to work. There’s no work now.”

“Have you done nursing long?”

“Since the end of ’fifteen. I started when he did. I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque.”

“This is the picturesque front,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “People can’t realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t all go on. He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Do you suppose it will always go on?”


“What’s to stop it?”

“It will crack somewhere.”

“We’ll crack. We’ll crack in France. They can’t go on doing things like the Somme and not crack.”

“They won’t crack here,” I said.

“You think not?”

“No. They did very well last summer.”

“They may crack,” she said. “Anybody may crack.”

“The Germans too.”

“No,” she said. “I think not.”
People of all sorts tend to speak to each other in non-literary bursts, which is what makes so much of dialogue in fiction cringe-worthy. Hemingway’s austerity serves him well in this regard. Reading the dialogue in the third and fourth chapters of Farewell -- including an entertaining and revealing passage in which a captain taunts a priest -- I was reminded of what I liked most about his work, and I felt like I should read the rest of this novel. Likely not anytime soon, but eventually.

(Read Tim's take here. The series will continue in the new year, and I'll post what we're reading next as soon as I know.)

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Blogger Matt said...

I first read A Farewell to Arms my senior year at a prestigious university (which was once attended by such luminaries as ... uh, Henry Cisneros, Gibby Haynes, and Jerheme Urban).

The simple declarative sentences are important. They set up a rhythm that may be best illustrated in the opening paragraph. (Egad, I love that opening paragraph.) The rhythm itself allows Hemingway to emphasize certain phrases and points without resorting to overly flowery language. The reader gets drawn into the rhythm, and then when Hemingway breaks the rhythm, it draws attention to the articles in that break.

Also, my English prof said that Hemingway's books are like icebergs in that 80% of the story is below the surface. Hemingway doesn't spell out everything that you need to know. People carry on conversations that are facially about one thing, but they have an undercurrent of larger topics. I always thought that was pretty realistic. A lot of times, people will be talking about one thing, but they're thinking and acting emotionally based on something else. See, e.g., Hills Like White Elephants, which is a conversation about abortion, despite the fact that the speakers never specifically address the topic.

And that's one of Hemingway's major themes: the insufficiency of language to address what's actually important. He replays that theme throughout his works. And his writing uses it as both style and theme.

Similarly, when he describes action, he doesn't always spell out the importance of what's going on. In one scene, Henry appears to be just sitting and stirring a cup of coffee, wasting time until he has to drive his ambulance again. But what he's actually doing is looking at where the bubbles lie in the cup of coffee -- in the middle of the cup, or along the outside -- because that was a tactic soldiers used to measure the barometer. He looks at the clouds and sky, and he sniffs deeply, but Hemingway doesn't say that he's actually trying to gauge whether the day is going to turn hot. Because if the weather was going to turn hot, that would mean that cars were more likely to overheat, which could trap an ambulance driver on the front, which could obviously be bad news for the driver. It's never explicitly revealed, but Henry makes his decision on when to drive -- the morning or the afternoon -- based on the events of that scene.

Notably, my English prof said that Hemingway was probably responsible for more bad fiction than anyone before or since. His writing looks easy, which meant many aspiring authors tried to copy his style. But it's deceptively complex, and easily turns to crap. (Which could also explain some of Hemingway's later works.)

All of Hemingway's books were semi-autobiographical, which kind of gives them a little punch. But they weren't strictly autobiographical. He used to say that good books should be "truer than if they actually occurred." Which, depending on your point of view, is either really cool, or a totally douchey thing to say.

-- MattM

4:15 AM  

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