I read this hot on the heels of War and Peace – could two books be any more different? After Tolstoy’s poetic prose and wise, rambling essays, the simple, seemingly unsophisticated style of Hemingway felt brutal.
Written in 1929 this largely autobiographical novel is written in the first person as Lieutenant Frederick Henry remembers serving as a paramedic in the Italian army during the first world war. There is a world weariness about it, as he recalls the actions of a group of men, his desertion from the army and his growing romance with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.
I’m afraid I found nearly all the characters detestable and even the ones that weren’t so bad were hampered with dialogue that lost my interest. In particular the bragging camaraderie of the soldiers was horrible to read and the conversations between Catherine Barkley and Henry were stilted and actually I thought just ridiculous. Women don’t speak like that, even English ones, in love, in 1918.
It’s liberating, reading a novel and not caring about the characters, I was able to live within the atmosphere without feeling in any way involved with the personal stories. The war is grimy, muddy, and bloody; in his short, sharp, declarative style we’re not spared the horrors or left with any questions over Hemingway’s disillusionment with the war.
“He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet had ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes.”
There are no long descriptions of the hopelessness of war; instead, Hemingway shows it through the everyday lives of the soldiers and the innumerable deserted villages and empty farm houses that were once people’s homes and livelihoods.
“The door of the house was open and I went in. Bonello and Piani came in after me. It was dark inside. I went back to the kitchen. There were ashes of a big fire on the big open-hearth. The pots hung over the ashes, but they were empty. I looked around but I could not find anything to eat.”
Where are all these families now? The two frightened young women who are found wandering along the road aren’t asked any questions, we don’t find out anything about them – they’re just two more displaced people.
Rain and Nature run throughout this book, and I suppose along with Food and Alcohol link the war with the romance. I read a review from Morley Callaghan, who on reading the first two chapters said that Hemingway wrote about the landscape with a “painter’s eye”. To me, it is more of an outdoorsy, sportsman’s eye – someone who really relishes being in the open air. In the scenes where he deserts from the army it’s so exciting I was exhausted. I felt as if I had read chapters but then had to look back to see that it was only one paragraph.
“When the sick feeling was gone I pulled into the willow bushes and rested again, my arms around some brush, holding tight with my hands to the branches. Then I crawled out, pushed on through the willows and onto the bank. It was half-daylight and I saw no one. I lay flat on the bank and heard the river and the rain.”
It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn.
Alcohol – rough red wine, Martini, grappa, beer, beer, cognac, more wine, more beer, champagne, good wine, whisky and soda, the drinking is ever-present. Whether it’s stealing wicker covered jugs of wine from empty houses, or bottles of champagne on ice in ski resorts. There are big white cheeses, spaghetti and ham and sausage, fried eggs, rolls and jam and coffee. I suppose it’s a very human thing and it links all the people in all their different situations together.
The romance (for me) was completely uninteresting, but the setting was lovely. The snow topped mountains in Switzerland, pine forests, eating breakfast in bed in front of a log fire! How cheesy – except it’s not because of the utter unsentimentality of it all: “We had a fine life. We lived through the months of January and February and the winter was very fine and we were very happy.” Hardly Mills and Boon!
And then there’s the rain . “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain” it says at the end of chapter one and it rains for the rest of the book, wherever the action, whoever the characters, it’s raining. Catherine says “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.” And the last line: “After a while I went out . . . and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” has a lovely symmetry.