70 Days With Hemingway And Me

Every Novel, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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What “I” Have Noticed…

June 29th, 2009 · No Comments · A Farewell to Arms

As with his first two novels, Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms in the first person. But the name of who’s talking – also in similar fashion to his first two novels – isn’t immediately revealed.

In fact, the full name of the “I” telling the story in A Farewell to Arms isn’t made known until page 82:

“I’m wounded. In the legs and feet and my head is hurt.”

“What’s your name?”

“Henry. Frederic Henry.”

Prior to this point, Frederic Henry is referred to as “Signor Tenente.” It wasn’t until the protagonist was called “Mr. Henry” at some point did I wonder what the word “Tenente” meant. So I looked it up online in a web site that translates Italian into English.

Tenente Translated

Silly me! I assumed Tenente was a name. It’s not. It’s a military title – Lieutenant.

If Hemingway has a formula it’s this: he relies on the power of narrative. In other words, he starts his books by immediately jumping into the telling of the story, drawing readers in so completely that they don’t realize – or maybe don’t even care – that he hasn’t revealed who’s talking. He’s able to pull that off because his novels are wholly original. When I read them I haven’t a clue what’ll happen next. I have to continue reading to find out.

That’s not a minor point, either. Authors today seem to write the same plots over and over again. Case in point: the vampire novels currently in vogue. I can’t tell one from another. The plots are the same. Movies are this way, too. They’re so incredibly predictable and tedious that I often exit the theater wishing there was a way to get back the two hours of my life that I wasted.

Not so with Hemingway.

Hemingway’s books are not only new to me, they’re new in that his stories are not ones I’ve seen a hundred times before. The only way to discover what happens is to read them. That, my friends, is the mark of a great writer.

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American, a lieutenant, in the Italian army during World War I.

Book I (pages 3-75) tells the story of a character we eventually learn is Lt. Frederic Henry, a corpsman, as he fights the boredom of life in the mountains during the war. He drinks a lot. He meets a nurse – Catherine Barkley – and, against his natural instincts as a player, falls in love with her. The book ends with Frederic being seriously wounded by “a big trench mortar shell” as he and three fellow soldiers – Gavuzzi, Passini, and Gordini – ate cheese and macaroni. Frederic is driven to a hospital in Milan.

Book II (pages 81-153) opens with Frederic in Milan and recounts his recovery, rehabilitation, and deepening of the relationship he started with Catherine. She had followed him to Milan and helped him with his recovery. Frederic continues to drink a lot and even develops jaundice because of excessive drinking. He gets Catherine pregnant. The book ends with Frederic boarding a train to return to the front.

Book III (pages 157-223), where I am now, opens with Frederic in Gorizia, a town in northern Italy.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Frederic and Catherine. I can’t even guess what’s going to happen to them. This is the very definition of suspense. I’m hooked.

Although Hemingway is known for the brevity of his writing, there’s a sentence on page 37 that I found thoroughly enjoyable because it was massive:

Maybe she would pretend that I was her boy that was killed and we would go in the front door and the porter would take off his cap and I would stop at the concierge’s desk and ask for the key and she would stand by the elevator and then we would get in the elevator and it would go up very slowly clicking at all the floors and then our floor the boy would open the door and stand there and she would step out and I would step out and we would walk down the hall and I would put the key in the door and open it and go in and then take down the telephone and ask them to send a bottle of capri bianca in a silver bucket full of ice and you would hear the ice against the pail coming down the corridor and the boy would knock and I would say leave it outside the door please.

Hemingway terse? Hell. That sentence was 164 words without so much as a comma!

It took me awhile to get into A Farewell to Arms. In fact, I didn’t start to enjoy it until around chapter four. But by page 94, I actually said aloud, “This is actually becoming an interesting book.”

I can’t wait to see what happens next!

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