Wednesday 25 May 2016

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of the reasons why I became a pacifist years ago was the sudden realisation that most wars (I would probably say “all”, but I do not want to be absolute) are senseless. The brutality involved contrasts sharply with the glory they supposedly bring. Of course, there are conflicts that are necessary, either because of nations being invaded and having to defend themselves or border skirmishes that turn into full-on confrontations. One of them was the First World War, which became the backdrop for Ernest Hemingway’s wartime novel A Farewell to Arms.

I first read this book back in uni. I say “read” but what I actually mean is that the book content somehow went through me, including my brain and left no traces. Nothing to do with the writing, which I think it’s pretty good in my humble opinion. At the time I am describing there were still coffins arriving from Angola, the result of a decade-long “international adventure” that cost Cuba twenty thousand troops. I do not think that I was then in the frame of mind to understand Papa Hemingway’s universal message: war is chaotic and produces neither saints nor sinners.

Re-reading the book now I realise that in the intervening 20-odd years I have become more staunchly anti-war. Coming across again the lives of Frederic Henry, the American “tenente” and main character, and his Italian confreres, I cannot ignore the sense of detachment one must adopt in the theatre of war. What this approach does to one’s humanity is, paradoxically, to take it away. The only way the Italians can kill the Austrians is by seeing them not only as the enemy and invader but as non-humans first and foremost. Same with the Italian battle police when they arrest their own officers during the army’s retreat: they kill them.

A Farewell to Arms can be said to be not just a novel about the crumbling of columns of soldiers but also about the crumbling of an ideology: wars are necessary and are winnable. The human wreckage left behind betrays this idea and turns it on its head. The fragile minds, the inability to display any kind of rational thinking and the moral collapse amongst troops are testament to war’s barbaric nature.

Hemingway’s language when describing his characters’ actions is casual, almost ordinary. There is a sort of quotidianness that lulls the reader, almost making us comfortable and misleading us to think that perhaps war is not that bad. Yes, there is a little bit of suffering and killing but it is all for a good cause. Until reality kicks in to great effect. Frederic Henry kills an engineer who tries to desert him and his men as they leave their jeep behind, stuck in the mud. The murder is in cold blood, but even calling it murder feels wrong and Papa wants us to know that, for this is war, what did you expect? It is not called murder but execution. His description of the death of Aymo, one of the Italian drivers, takes him fewer than ten lines.

And yet, there are beautiful moments in the novel that remind the reader that maybe, just maybe, there is hope somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Henry falls in love with a British nurse. Although love is the wrong word here. Both Frederic and Catherine, the nurse, are fleeing personal demons: she, a dead fiancé, he the spectre of a war he feels ambivalent about. Together, they build a relationship based on pain and escapism rather than love. I must admit that I found the dialogue between them repetitive and monotonous; however, it is one of the ingenious ways in which Hemingway shows us the futility of war. At any given moment one of these two characters can be wiped off the face of the earth forever and then what? Nothing, because that is war really, the battle for nothingness.

The novel might have reinforced my pacifism but I doubt it made Hemingway feel the same as he was writing it. Machismo is everywhere: there is plenty of braggadocio, especially of the womanising variety, Italian men are shown as virile and hot-blooded and the American lieutenant as calculating and decisive. A Farewell to Arms might be more nuanced than other Hemingway novels but in its no-holds-barred depiction of war it somehow celebrates old-fashioned masculinity.

Whereas Books 1; 2 and 3 create the background for Hemingway’s plot-setting and character-exploration, the last two parts bring powerful reflections on war and its controversial role in peace-brokering. Who knows? Perhaps Papa Hemingway was also a pacifist after all.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. It was interesting to hear your reaction reading a second time. I read this in high school and prefered For Whom the Bell Tolls. I lost my taste for Hemingway as I got older, mainly due to his macho attitude although he did create some strong female characters, especially for his time.

  2. I love A Farewell to Arms, first read in my late teens and several times since. I'd probably be a pacifist anyway, but Hemingway describes the futility of it all wonderfully - and in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

  3. I doubt that Papa Hemingway would be comfortable with the pacifist label.
    My father (a German Jew) told me that there are no winners in war. There are losers and bigger losers. And I wouldn't argue with him.

  4. I've always wondered how many men fighting in wars actually consider the reality that they are killing a father, husband, son, brother. On both sides I am sure it is far more frequent than the image of the emotionless warrior that is more often portrayed. But if it is, it makes war seem even more surreal.
    Except for the reasons you presented, I think war is a form of insanity, ego and greed. Sounds a little hard, but it's honest.

    I've never read any Hemingway except for A Moveable Feast. I know too much about the history of his treatment of his wives and the appalling self-aggrandising way in which he treated Martha Gellhorn in their efforts to report the ending of the second WW. (I think this attitude/behavior is part of his depiction of female characters.) This is just one guy that I can't get behind no matter how talented he was. No one is perfect and I admit the prejudice nature of this comment. And apologize if I've offended anyone -

  5. There is never any winners, sad that too few realize it until the war is going on.

  6. The thing which must be remembered before beginning the first page of any story by Ernest Hemingway is that he was a reporter, a journalist, an observer first (as in his set of priorities) before he was anything else, including a writer of fiction. Like most journalists of his era (and, obviously, very few working today) he believed he could remain a detached spectator to life and to history, and objectively and effectively translate them both via fiction and non-fiction in a manner so readers could know them and understand them -- especially those experiences in which he, personally, had been a player.

    Again, CiL, you have chosen a broad topic which, for me, would require a day and a few thousand words to respond to adequately, so all I will add is a single thought: It has been a number of years since I last read this book, and none of it really has stayed with me except for the final dozen or so pages. They are carved as stone in my mind and, to me, the rest of the book is superfluous to all the tomorrows in the life of Frederic Henry.

    EMH: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

  7. I am currently reading Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" for a literary and food salon that I hold at my house each month, and I was saying to a friend that I absolutely love reading Hemingway this time around. I've never been much of a Hemingway lover, with the exception of "A Farewell to Arms" -- such a beautiful, hopeless, romantic story, no?

  8. I have never read Hemingway but I guess it's not too late. However, my experience of war is that there are no real winners.

  9. Interesting to read this post and your views on it.

  10. Thanks for your comments. As noted here, Hemingway was many things before becoming a writer. This is the reason why his "war books" read like quasi-documentaries. The first-hand account in "A Farewell to Arms" is powerful.

    Greetings from London.

  11. I hear does any governing body believe that peace can be won by bombing people? It just breeds hatred and enmity. I love the photo on your is really beautiful.

  12. Haven't read this one by Hemingway. Fascinated by your review - so perhaps I should. I love re-reading books about 20 years later - they seem like books one has never read before due to age, experience, life...

  13. I would argue that WWII was necessary to prevent both the Japanese and Germans from realizing the completion of the Holocaust and world domination. Every other conflict I can name seems to be rooted in fear or some variation of notions of superiority, neither of which will ever achieve anything positive. Greetings to you.

  14. The idea of reading Hemingway in Cuba while the nation was involved in Angola is surreal, enlightening, and filled with possibility (maybe like "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" that was set in the Cultural Revolution of China). Although Hemingway had ties with Cuba, I would not have thought the communist government would have been that friendly to his legacy.

  15. Although I doubt its plausibility, it's interesting to consider the possibility that Hemingway might have harbored an inner pacifist. Could be, though. I think most people who have observed war up-close and personal come to see its futility. In a PBS special called "By Vietnam Vets for Vietnam Vets," which was telecast in 1985, the tenth anniversary of the withdrawal from Vietnam, one of the vets said, "The lesson of war is... no... more... war." The audience, made up of Vietnam vets and their families, erupted in cheers.

  16. I haven't read this book, but I can say that the whole concept of war fill me with horror...and anger. We call ourselves intelligent and civilized...and then our egos take over and transform us into total hypocrites.
    I fully understand the lingering effects of father fought in WWII, and according to my mother, he returned home to her a complete stranger. In the 26 years I knew him, until his death, he was a severe depressive who was prone to recurring nightmares and suicidal tendencies. I lived every day in fear of losing him. It was horrible.
    Oh if only we humans could begin to realize how futile it all is...there never will be any winners in war...only losers...

    Such a powerful post, CiL...thank you for helping to highlight this emotive subject.
    Now all we need is for some of those in power to actually LISTEN.

    Have a great week! :)

  17. Hi ACIL - thanks for posting this review about the book ... I hope to read it sometime ... cheers Hilary

    Wish more of us would think and consider before we go to war ... or talk revenge ...



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