A FAREWELL TO ARMS
When I finished reading A FAREWELL TO ARMS I declared to my wife that I hated Ernest Hemingway. Here’s why.
First of all, nothing happens in the story until page forty-seven. By happens, I mean that something occurs which cannot be undone and that changes the course of the story going forward. The event I’m referring to is Henry getting wounded during in the war. It’s a riveting scene, I’ll admit. But up until that point, I had to slog through the minutia of the day-to-day life of an army ambulance driver when there’s no fighting going on and there’s nothing to do but kill time. I had to hear about everything he was eating and drinking. I had to be made to listen to all the meaningless conversations between Henry and his buddies in the Italian army. And I had to endure countless dry descriptions of wet weather. Some of that stuff I found interesting and necessary. It’s world building. I get it. But five or ten pages would have been sufficient to set the stage for this story. Forty-seven pages was a punishment.
Then there’s the writing style. No contractions. No commas between independent clauses. Random paragraph breaks. Over-simplified fourth grade sentence structure. Characters who all sound the same. At the end of each of the five parts, Hemmingway ties up all the extant loose ends and you feel as if the novel is over. (If only.) There’s nothing in the writing that inspires you to turn the page and start the next part. It’s as if Hemmingway is daring you to keep reading by offering you opportunity after opportunity to lose interest. I had the constant feeling that Hemmingway was saying, “I know what you want in a novel. You want variety. You want specificity. You want subtext and innuendo and metaphor. You want humor and irony and all the things that make prose fiction jump off the page and light up your imagination. Well, fuck you.”
And finally, there is the ending. Unlike Scribner, who published the edition I read (see below), I will not spoil the ending here. But I will say that, once again, Hemmingway seems to have created an ending that is meant to breed contempt in the reader. There’s no denouement after the big climax. No contemplation. No consideration that there’s more to life than what happens to you. It’s surely the bleakest ending to a book I’ve read. And I’ve read THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. At least in THE ROAD there’s an uptick of hope. At the end of AFWTA there is only banality and waste and void. Waste and void. Waste. And. Void.
A note about the edition I read. I read the Hemmingway Library Edition, published by Scribner in 2012. Incredibly, the editors decided to insert photo plates of some of Hemmingway’s hand-written alternate endings right smack dab in the middle of the book. And in the plate with the biggest and clearest handwriting, the surprise ending of the book is revealed! The big moment! What the reader normally slogs for eight hours to get to! Spoiled at hour number four! It’s like Scribner had been possessed by the ghost of Hemmingway himself. “We know what you want in a novel. You want to be surprised by the ending. You do, don’t you? Well, guess what? Fuck you, reader. Fuck. You.”