70 Days With Hemingway And Me

Every Novel, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Farewell to A Farewell to Arms

July 1st, 2009 · 1 Comment · A Farewell to Arms

Grappa

I finished A Farewell to Arms last night.

My first thought was, “What a friggin’ depressing book.”

The ending dripped with irony and the kind of sadness only a Serling-esque, fatalistic view of the human condition can bring. The book’s main character, Frederic Henry, overcame great odds, conquered his fear of love, his hatred for the war, and serious personal tragedy only to lose everything in the end.

Depressing.

Book III ends with Frederic hiding from “battle police” (who had captured him and were shooting fellow officers) under a tarp on a flat bed train car will of guns.

Book IV (pages 227-272) opens with his arrival, as a fugitive, in Milan. It ends with he and Catherine fleeing, by row boat, to Switzerland.

Book V (pages 275-314) opens with Catherine and Frederic living in Switzerland. It closes with Frederic and these incredibly succinct, sad words:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

Friggin’. Depressing.

A few noteworthy observations jotted down on legal pads:

1. Lots of “grappa” drunk during the book. In fact, lots of drinking of everything. (No absinthe, though.) Near the end of the book I thought I’d look up what grappa was. The info-in-waiting web site Wiki told me: “Grappa is a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of between 37.5% and 60% alcohol by volume (75 to 120 US proof), of Italian origin, similar to Spanish orujo liquor and Portuguese aguardente. Literally “grape stalk”, most grappa is made by distilling pomace and grape residue (mainly the skins, but also stems and seeds) left over from winemaking after pressing.

So there you have it.

2. Frederic Henry’s relationship with his “best friend and war brother” (p. 164) Rinaldi is one of the best in the book. Lots of witty, playful banter between the two. An example, from pages 162-163. Rinaldi, the Italian, speaks first and to Frederic:

“Are you in love?”

“Yes.”

“With that English girl?”

“Yes.”

“Poor baby. Is she good to you?”

“Of course.”

“I mean is she good to you practically speaking?”

“Shut up.”

“I will. You will see I am a man of extreme delicacy. Does she——?”

“Rinin,” I said. “Please shut up. If you want to be my friend, shut up.”

“I don’t want to be your friend, baby. I am your friend.”

“Then shut up.”

“All right.”

3. Hemingway captures the “everydayness” of life like few writers I’ve read. He deftly describes life’s highs and lows, its sameness and futility, its joy and the desperation, its monotony and thrills in such a way that reading his books is like walking a fine line between watching everyday life unfold and being carried along by a story you can’t put down. As his characters weary of the war, their emotions plumb the depths, but always skirt on the edge of gaiety like an actress in a movie from the 1940s. An example, from page 172. Frederic is talking to a priest friend of his. The priest speaks first:

“I had hoped for something.”

“Defeat?”

“No. Something more.”

“There isn’t anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.”

“I hoped for a long time for victory.”

“Me too.”

“Now I don’t know.”

“It has to be one or the other.”

“I don’t believe in victory any more.”

“I don’t. But I don’t believe in defeat. Though it may be better.”

“What do you believe in?”

“In sleep,” I said. He stood up.

4. As Frederic watches Catherine sleep in the night (chapter 34, page 239), he thinks:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

That’s extremely profound, perhaps even true. Yet, extraordinarily melancholy. Even morose.

5. Frederic and Count Greffi, a 94-year-old former dipomat who is a table-clearing billiards player, are talking (chapter 35, page 250). Frederic speaks first:

“You are wise.”

“No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of the old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”

I love that phrase: “They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”

A Farewell to Arms is a fascinating, fatalistic book. A crystal-clear snapshot of life, with very little difference between those caught up in war and those making their way in civilian life. The world kills them all.

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