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A Farewell to Arms

June 7, 2012

Moving all our books around has made me want to re-read more of them, and this month I was attracted to the Hemingway titles and to a read-along, something I rarely join. So for the next few weeks, on Thursday, I’m going to be documenting my progress re-reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I’m pretty sure that the last time I read this novel was before I became a parent, because the proximity of the fighting to the village where the narrator lives struck me with more fear than I remember, the fear of a person who is responsible for more lives than her own:  “Now the fighting was in the next mountains beyond and was not a mile away. The town was very nice and our house was very fine. The river ran behind us and the town had been captured very handsomely but the mountains beyond it could not be taken and I was very glad the Austrians seemed to want to come back to the town some time, if the war should end, because they did not bombard it to destroy it but only a little in a military way.”

I think that when I read it before, I bought into the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone about how he lived, which pins down the time frame for me–I must have first read this novel in college, when some of the description would have sounded like a romantic version of how I was living at the time, surrounded by people my own age:  “when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring….If you have had it you know.”

So when the narrator falls for the girl his friend admires, embarks on a wartime romance with her, and goes off to be wounded, despite her Saint Anthony on a chain around his neck, it struck me as more desperate than it did the first time through.  I didn’t originally appreciate the level of irony that the matter-0f-fact tone gives to the first part of the novel:  “He said there was so much dirt blown into the wound that there had not been much hemorrhage.”

This time through, I feel like I care more about the narrator’s welfare than he cares himself. He is a young man, and therefore practically immortal. I am the mother of a sixteen-year-old son, and therefore practically paralyzed with fear.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2012 7:52 am

    I like your thoughts on this, comparing it to how you felt when you first read it an now. There seems to be a distance between the narrator and what happens to him….its like he almost doesn’t care what happens to him and that he’s just going through the motions. I am looking forward to reading the next section for next week. We’ll have discussion questions on the War blog tomorrow at some point.

    • June 8, 2012 9:07 am

      Yes, I think the narrator is fatalistic. He believes that his life is his own, and other people aren’t affected too much by his life or death. That’s why someone comments on why he has volunteered for a war that is not his own. (I love his reply, about how he speaks the language well.)

  2. June 7, 2012 7:58 am

    I was thinking about this book yesterday when I saw someone reading it on the subway. I struggle with Hemingway. I love the way he uses language, but I find his stories alienating. I keep thinking, though, that I haven’t read anything but A Moveable Feast in a very long time and maybe I should think about revisiting some of the novels.

    • June 8, 2012 9:04 am

      Alienating? I find his characters feel alienated from other people, but that draws me in. They say so little of what they feel. It’s like being home, for me!

      • June 9, 2012 7:54 pm

        Alienating. Like these books were written for someone else, not me. And yet I love his language. And there are so many indelible things from the books I’ve read. I have a love-hate relationship with Hemingway.

  3. June 7, 2012 9:07 am

    I feel very much as Harriet does. I haven’t read this particular novel and prefer the short stories. I think the manly-man pov and the distance between narrator and reader makes me give up every time.

    • June 8, 2012 9:06 am

      The short stories are good. I can see that if you don’t like that distance between narrator and reader (which I love), it would be better in short bursts. “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is one of my favorites.

  4. June 7, 2012 9:47 am

    I remember when each of our girls was 14, it seemed that whenever we heard or read horrible news about teenagers, they were always 14 year old girls. It was crazy-makingly terrifying.

    A long time ago, my dad was helping me navigate a really tricky ethical/emotional terrain that had to do with my supporting a friend’s decision to have an abortion. With a catch in his voice, he said, “You know, Joybells, if everyone knew what they were getting into when they had kids, most people would say, ‘Oh dear. No thank you.'” Learning to live with that constant hum (or roar) of terror is part of having children out in the world, I think. And from listening to my 80+ year old parents, that never goes away.

    As for Hemingway, I did a few tours of duty with some of his novels. I suspect that at this point in my life, knowing what I’d be getting into, my response to the idea of picking up one of his books would be a different sort of, “Oh dear. No thank you.” But you might be able to convince me otherwise. (:

    • June 8, 2012 9:03 am

      In terms of convincing you otherwise, re-reading this one is, so far, a good exercise in remembering how as an adolescent you believe your life is your own, and you can value it or squander it at will. As the mother of an adolescent, I hope this is not true. But seeing the world through the eyes of someone still caught up in that kind of thinking is good for me right now.

  5. aartichapati permalink
    June 7, 2012 1:10 pm

    Great post, Jeanne! I think it is always interesting to read books again and see how your own reactions have changed based on your life perspective now. It is clear that becoming a parent can give you a totally different read on a situation!

    I have never read Hemingway. I am not sure why, and it’s unfair to both of them, but I often confuse him with Faulkner. I have read Faulkner, so I should give Hemingway a go, too.

    • June 8, 2012 9:01 am

      Hmm, I don’t think of Faulkner and Hemingway as anything alike. The joy of reading Hemingway is in the details–I love the way what a character sees tells me what he or she is thinking about at that moment.

  6. June 7, 2012 1:21 pm

    I had to read Hemmingway for an exam when I was a teenager and unfortunately had him ruined. I’ve never gone back since. I suppose I should try again, but the experience was very bitter. As an aside, this post illustrates precisely why I don’t reorganise books. I would get them off the shelf and then sit re-reading in the middle of the pile and never get round to putting them back on the shelf at all.

    • June 8, 2012 9:00 am

      The cure for having Hemingway ruined by an assignment is to read some parodies–his style is so easy to parody, and they’re so good!
      And yes, the reorganizing is going kind of slowly…

  7. June 7, 2012 9:22 pm

    God, I find Hemingway’s writing style absolutely unbearable. I never know if it’s because I hate him as a person or what. I just can’t even be dealing with it. I always wish I liked him and then turn out not to like him.

    • June 7, 2012 9:46 pm

      Me too. Annoying doesn’t begin to describe it. Truly I am a failure as an English major 😛

      • June 8, 2012 8:58 am

        I thought of Jenny when I began re-reading this book, but did it anyway. I have no idea why you two find his writing annoying.

  8. June 8, 2012 10:30 am

    This book was the first time I ran into my biggest problem with Hemingway. His women always come off as completely unbelievable to me. He writes woman as he wishes they were, almost brainless. I’ve found that my favorite pieces by Hemingway tend to be his short stories and A Moveable Feast. That one I love because it rings true for me.

    • June 8, 2012 1:45 pm

      I’m no Hemingway expert, but I don’t think his forte is in characterization. His women are like other parts of the scenery–something the narrator reacts against.

  9. June 8, 2012 12:06 pm

    This would be a good choice for me to consider re-reading sometime too. I’m sure it’s been over 30 years since I read it so I’d definitely be seeing it from a new perspective.

  10. June 8, 2012 1:46 pm

    That’s the fun of re-reading. Unless the “suck fairy” comes this time around.

  11. jeanlp permalink
    June 9, 2012 3:42 pm

    I can see where being the mom of a teenage boy would make this book far more terrifying. I have two little girls myself, so it’s the villages that get me, and as for the boys I wish they wouldn’t drink so much! I am another who finds the Hemingway style irritating. Still, this will be good for me.

  12. June 10, 2012 9:28 am

    It’s the villages? You mean because they seem so defenceless in the face of this war?

  13. June 10, 2012 6:46 pm

    I love seeing how people feel about books when they re-read them, and how the changes in our lives affect that re-reading.

    I really struggled with the first four or five chapters. Hemingway’s writing is so bland to me. Not like I want flowery prose, but his matter-of-fact style takes some getting used to. And the sentences that go on for five or six lines. It’s gotten better, though. I started worrying that I’d completely hate the book, so the fact that I’m looking forward to reading the next 10 pages says something. 😉

    • June 13, 2012 1:34 pm

      I remember loving the matter-of-fact tone when I was an adolescent. Now it strikes me as much more brave, because I have more sense of the effort it takes for the young narrator.

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