“A Farewell to Arms” (1929) was the book that made Hemingway famous. It is about an American who serves in the First World War on the Italian front. He drives an ambulance, moving the wounded of the war to hospitals. But he becomes one of the wounded himself. He has a love affair with an English nurse.
It is about war but there are no heroes. It is about love but there are no roses. It is about death but there is no God.
It does not have a strong storyline and parts of it are flat, but it has an ending you will never forget. It is well worth reading if only for that – and Hemingway’s writing style.
Hemingway wrote the book in Paris in the 1920s after having much the same experience of the war. He wrote it like the hard-bitten American newspaperman that he was: Short sentences with short words, one after the other. Just the facts, no time wasted on feelings. No one had written a book that way before, not a great one at least. The book is a good example of the power of description and simple language.
Wars in the past had been a chance for glory, but the First World War was not and everyone knew it. Millions of men died like animals and yet the front barely moved. Tolkien was there and wrote about another world. Hemingway was there and looked it square in the eye and wrote about what he saw. It is one of the best books about war that I have read, on a level with Thucydides.
The love affair is written with the same cold eye. The two like being with each other, but they are not in love. There are no fireworks, no flowers, no forevers. He is not in love with Catherine – he just needs her body. But he is faithful and sticks by her, so he is not just using her like he has with the women in his past. Catherine says things are “grand”, but she says it too many times.
And as with love and war, so with life itself. There is no God, there is no sense to it all. You go down the street to drink your wine and read the paper and all the while people are dying for no reason. We are here for a short time and then we are gone. And that is it.
It is small wonder Hemingway became a drunk who later killed himself. He was Catholic, but he did not have a Catholic sense of the world.
That senselessness of life makes the book a cold one. It is the one part I cannot take to heart: I do believe in God, so life does make sense no matter how bad it gets. I am like Daniela Mercury, the Brazilian singer: she may be nearly as rich as the queen of England, but in life she sings and prays and looks up above her.