Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway as a young man.   illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Hemingway as a young man.
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The most gaping hole in my formal education is a lack of courses in American Literature. In undergraduate and graduate school combined, I had taken only one course in American lit. My understanding is mostly self-directed–and often spurred on by the requirements of teaching American Lit survey courses for many years. Certainly, I know the school classics: The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury.

And as a reader, I have discovered on my own Vonnegut and Pynchon, Heller and Elison, Mailer, Roth and Updike. And from my friends I have learned to love DeLillo, Wallace, and Johnson.  But I know there are gaps.

I took a tour, a few weeks back of Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West. I respect and admire Hemingway’s short stories–and often teach them in writing classes for their craft–and have fond memories of reading The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast,  but I never read much else. Anyway, the tour guide told us that it was here in the Key West house that Hemingway wrote a large portion of his work, in particularly A Farewell to Arms, which he stated is considered Hemingway’s greatest work. (Remember, he is a tour-guide, not a literary critic.)

And so I decided to give it a try. And to be truthful, in the beginning, it was slogging read at times.

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

In brief, the novel is the semi-autobiographical story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, working for the Italian army during World War I, who is wounded, falls in love with his nurse, impregnates her and sneaks across the border with her into neutral Switzerland. There are pieces that are perfect Hemingway: the army’s long retreat, the Swiss countryside in winter, the view from a hotel room. These passages are clear and distinct and one can almost imagine Hemingway speaking them himself.

What one cannot imagine is anyone speaking the dialogue that Hemingway has given his characters to speak. The dialogue among the soldiers is stilted–but I thought perhaps that was intentional as the narrator is an American and the conversation is between him and his Italian comrades. But the conversation between the lovers–between Frederick and Catherine–is downright embarrassing.

Perhaps, it is dated. But I do not believe so. The dialogue in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby published four years earlier in 1925 is not as silly or inane. This can’t be how people talked 75 years ago. Perhaps, Hemingway is trying to capture the coded, playful language that lovers often engage in privately. Well if so, it should have remained private. While Catherine Barkley is a strong woman–a British nurse working in the Italian theater of war–when she speaks she sounds infantile and ditzy, hardly the type that Henry would fall for.

But then, perhaps, it is just me, the reader, far past the ages of the protagonists, a little bit wiser (one hopes) and a little bit more jaded.

And yet, having said all that, the slogging read and the cloying dialogue are more than made up for in the last chapter. It is here that Hemingway elevates the novel to something different, something larger. It succeeds not merely because of the drama–which in lesser hands would have become melodrama–but because of  the craft. The language is pared down–like Joyce had taught him–and there is simply life, death, man and woman. It doesn’t get more basic than that. In the end we admire Frederic Henry more than before–I found him hard to like or take seriously throughout much of the book– and we admire Hemingway too. We admire what he is doing and we understand how this novel placed Hemingway in the pantheon of American authors.

Hemingway famously once claimed that he rewrote that last chapter 39 times. Well, then it is a good advertisement for revision, for it is so superior to everything else.

The novel was an instant–and huge–success.  Within a year of its publication a dramatization was staged and in 1932 Hollywood released a major film of the novel, featuring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.  In 1957, a second film was made, this time starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

I have seen neither, and I won’t search for them. It is Hemingway’s language and style that is the star of A Farewell to Arms, not the story.  And much of that would be lost in film.

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

The Hemingway House, Key West

Hemingway House, Key West Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway House, Key West
Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

I have always had a love/hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For a long time, all the machismo got in my way: the big game hunting, the bull fighting, the boxing, the boasting, the egoism, all seemed to be compensating for something, a sense of insecurity perhaps, to put it in simplest terms.

And yet, I love his writing. It is pure and clean and powerful and elemental. I can still feel the the visceral punch in  “Indian Camp” when the father removed the blanket from the young husband in the upper bunk. Or, the pared-down, gradual dawning of realization in reading “Hills Like White Elephants” or the existential abyss yawning at the end of a “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

It’s been a while since I read one of the novels. I remember A Sun Also Rises fondly. The damaged romanticism of  Jake Barnes, the alluring aloofness of Brett Ashley, the thirsty landscape of Spain are all still vivid in my mind despite how long ago I last read it. And while critics claim A Farewell to Arms to be the better written novel, The Sun Also Rises remains more important to me.  (A colleague just last month called it the worst novel written in English! Oh well.)

And so, with this ambivalence about Hemingway, I visited his home while in Key West in early June.

The home is extraordinary–and rich in story and history.

photo

The front of the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street in Key West. Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

In the 1930s, Hemingway moved to Key West with his second wife–Pauline Pfeiffer–whose uncle purchased the house on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. And although, Hemingway claimed that he was “restless” in Key West, at this house he wrote a great deal of what would be his most important work.

The house is a two level structure built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a successful architect and salvager, and the Hemingways bought it in 1931.  Today, the home is an Historic Site and remains filled with the Hemingways’ furniture and artifacts.  Throughout each room are both original furnishings and memorabilia–posters of movies made from his novels, photos of Hemingway at various stages of his life, of his family, and of various celebrities and writers. The bed in the master bedroom is actually two double beds that Hemingway wired together and the headboard is a gate made of Spanish mahogany that Hemingway and his wife had seen in a monastery in Spain.  A bench in the foyer is from the same monastery.

Hemingway's Writing Studio in Key West Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway’s Writing Studio in Key West
Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Behind the main house is a “carriage house” in which Hemingway had built a writing studio on the second floor.  In order to ensure his privacy, Hemingway had a wrought-iron catwalk stretched across the patio from the bedroom to his studio.  This was the only means in and out.  Today, the catwalk has been taken down and there is a narrow stairway from the patio to the studio door.  It is an ideal working space.

The house also has a large pool–the first ever in Key West.  Hemingway and Pauline had wanted to build a pool, but cost was prohibitive.  They had bought the house for $8000 dollars, but building a pool in the remote Keys was expensive. Instead, Hemingway built a regulation sized boxing ring. Much to Pauline’s dismay, her dream of lounging poolside had given way to a ring side seat to her husband’s sparring bouts.

However, Pauline got her way (and ultimately the house itself).  Hemingway had started an affair with the writer Martha Gelhorn, and the two of them had met up in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War.  When Pauline caught wind of the tryst, she promptly had a over-sized pool built–at the cost of $20,000, two and half times the cost of the house.

When Hemingway returned he was none too pleased.  In one gesture of comeuppance, he dragged a urinal from what was then Sloppy Joe’s (and is now Captain Tony’s) which had been thrown curbside during renovations, and brought it home as a watering trough for his many cats. As he told his wife, “you have your pool, and now I have mine.”

And it is the cats that retain their residency.  Hemingway loved cats, particularly 6-fingered, “polydactyl” cats. He believed them to be good luck. There are countless photos of Hemingway with them–while he wrote and while he lounged. (Apparently, they were the only others who had access to his studio.) Today, all of the 48 or so cats on the property are descendants of Hemingway’s cats–and all of them carry the gene for the polydactyl mutation.

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property. photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property.
photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

But after the cats and the pools and the writing studios, after the womanizing, the wives, and the bluster, after the houses and the legends and the suicide, what we are left with in the end is the writing.  As I said earlier, it is pristine and clear and purposeful.  Hemingway was a great reviser, mostly paring down and paring down to the very essence of what he wanted to say. As he famously told an interviewer, the hardest part is getting the words right:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)