Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve read some Hemingway before, but I don’t remember enjoying Hemingway as much as I enjoyed this one. Everyone talks about Hemingway’s terse prose style, but here it seems to be used to its best effect. Saying very little but saying volumes at the same time.

I turned her so I could see her face when I kissed her and I saw that her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backward as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers. I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.

This was one of the first signals that I was on to something good here, coming very early in the novel when Frederic Henry first meets Catherine Barkley. They would become important to each other. I knew that, not just because it would be the kind of things that happens in books, but because Hemingway telegraphed it in a way that was clear but at the same time subtle. If I had read this book ten years ago, I don’t think I would have stopped on this paragraph. I would’ve sailed past it.

Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

It’s philosophical. It’s simple, but philosophical at the same time. And it’s powerful. Life, love, war and death—it’s all powerful stuff, but told simply and with smooth and easy transitions from one scene to the next and pages of nothing but dialogue. Why do I have so much trouble getting from place to place and allowing my characters to talk to each other? Next time I am, maybe I should pull this one down and read a few pages?

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