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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #48: A Farewell to Arms

farewelltoarmsI tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I just knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died.

I tried reading Hemingway in college, just the one short story, and it was so misogynistic that I swore I’d never bother with him again. His brief appearances in Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin softened me up a bit, so I put this novel on my 100 great books list even though I still didn’t want to read it. Then someone at the Common Good Books event asked if I’d ever read A Farewell to Arms (since, y’know, it’s got the whole love-in-war thing going on). I told her I was allergic to Hemingway, and to my satisfaction everybody got a chuckle out of it.

So imagine how taken aback I was to find that, apart from one annoying instance of the N-word, I actually liked this novel. People always praise his spare prose, and I get it now, I see the beauty in it.

I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid. Oh, God, I said, get me out of here.

Frederick Henry—an American ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War—is an unremarkable character, but I think that must be the point; there’s nothing remotely romantic or heroic about him, nor anything ‘epic’ about his situation. Even his relationship with Catherine underscores the absurdity, the mess, the out-and-out wrongness of war. What would otherwise have been a passing attraction turns into a great love; he runs from the battlefield to live with her in peace and quiet, and in the end finds life would have been kinder to let him die in uniform.

The ending is inevitable, of course. It made me cry.

Gosh, this is turning into quite a surprising experiment, isn’t it? Who would have thought I’d be bashing Peter Pan and writing admiringly of Hemingway?!

(Oh, and I went back and forth between my paperback copy and the audiobook read by John Slattery, who is excellent. Isn’t he on Mad Men? I think that’s the guy.)

4 Comments to Great Book #48: A Farewell to Arms

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    February 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m still skeptical, but maybe I’ll give him another try one of these days. I still associate Hemingway with high school English in that dreading I-didn’t-do-my-reading-last-night sort of way.

  2. February 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    This post made me laugh. I actually really like Hemingway, despite the misogyny and animal-killing, despite the way he sometimes becomes a caricature of himself. I relate to his desire for a bit of clean, simple experience in the midst of the hot mess that is human society (especially in war). Anyway, glad you found one of his you could appreciate!

  3. February 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    You didn’t do your reading either?? 😉

  4. February 13, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Yes! That’s what I was trying to say: ‘his desire for a bit of clean, simple experience in the midst of the hot mess that is human society.’ That’s exactly what I found so appealing about this novel.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.