Review: A Farewell to Arms

I had never read this World War I novel by Ernest Hemingway, so that when my wife suggested that I select some books for us to listen to while we were driving down to Sicily, I selected it.  The particular edition I bought is read by John Slattery, an American film and television actor, who is best known, perhaps, for his role as Roger Sterling in the TV drama series Mad Men; his diction is excellent, he reads with the requisite emotional emphasis, and with the distinct accents of characters of various nationalities.

Hemingway, born in 1899, was a reporter for The Kansas City Star for a few months after graduation from high school before leaving for the Italian front in World War I to serve as an ambulance driver, having been rejected by the US Army because of his eyesight.  He was seriously wounded and returned home.  This experience formed the basis of his third novel, A Farewell to Arms.  Similarly, the love story of the protagonist in A Farewell to Arms with the British nurse, Catherine Barkley, is similar to Hemingway’s affair with the American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who was seven years his senior and he had planned to marry, but who become engaged to an Italian officer.

Ernest Hemingway

Frederick Henry, an American paramedical officer serving in the Italian Army in World War I, is introduced by an Italian doctor friend to a pretty British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and though Frederick does not want a relationship, he tries to seduce her.  In combat, he is wounded in the knee by a mortar shell and is sent to a hospital in Milan where Catherine has also been sent.  As Frederick’s knee slowly heals from surgery, he and Catherine spend time together and fall in love.  He is kicked out of the hospital for concealing alcohol, sent back to the front line, and by the time he can return to Milan, Catherine is three months’ pregnant.  When he returns to his unit, he finds that morale has declined precipitously, and not long after, the Austro-Hungarians break through the Italian lines at the Battle of Caporetto.  During the ensuing chaos, it becomes necessary to abandon the ambulances and Frederick kills an insubordinate sergeant.  He finds his way back to the main retreating column, and on crossing a bridge, he discovers that officers not accompanied by their men are suspected of cowardice and ‘treachery’, supposedly leading to the Italian defeat.  Solitary officers are being interrogated and summarily shot.  Frederick dives into the river and is carried downstream to a point where he can board a freight train which carries him to Milan.  At that point, he renounces his military service.  Catherine, however, has been relocated to Stresa, where he finds her, and he is aware that as a deserter, he is subject to execution.  Learning that he is about to be arrested, he and Catherine row a small boat some thirty-five miles up Lago Maggiore to Switzerland, where they are permitted to remain.  Catherine experiences a very difficult birth which results in a Cesarean delivery of a still-born boy, and she has a fatal hemorrhage.  Frederick returns to the hotel alone.

A Farewell to Arms is remarkable in its realistic, unadorned depiction of the absolute futility of war, and of the terrible price it can inflict on participants and bystanders, alike.  Without any actual combat scenes, one still has the sense of ultimately futile involvement.  Hemingway has a remarkable facility with dialogue that defines his characters.  Emotional impact is not explicit; rather, it is inherent in the careful scene setting, and the dialogue.  Exterior settings often leave one with not only a mental picture, but with the feeling such a place would evoke.  Indoor settings are brought to life with just a few words: a ladder-back chair here, a rickety table there.  Hemingway’s recollections of specific places like the Galleria in Milan are remarkably clear after over a decade time lapse.

The only fault I could find with this novel is that there were times that I felt that the pace needed to pick up a bit, particularly with Frederick and Catherine were together, and there was little really new in their interactions.  Of course, the ending is very sad, but the reader knows that the end will be tragic.

Review: The Immortalists

This novel attracted my attention because it has good reviews.  It also has about five pages of glowing blurbs; how can I go wrong?

The Immortalists was written by Chloe Benjamin, who also wrote The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.  She is a gradate of Vassar College (which was a happy hunting ground for dates when I was at university) and she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.

Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists is set in 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Four Gold children, aged between seven and thirteen, are looking for a travelling psychic who can tell them the date of their individual deaths.  The first to die, on the forecast date, is Simon, the youngest, in his early twenties, of AIDS in San Francisco.  Klara, two years older than Simon, and a magician, who not only wants to entertain her audience with her magic and her death-defying feats, but wants the audience to believe in magic, dies on schedule of an apparent suicide in Las Vegas.  Klara’s older brother, Daniel, a doctor, becomes involved with a policeman who is investigating the psychic in connection with Simon’s and Klara’s deaths.  He is shot by the policeman as he tries to kill the psychic, whom he has tracked down; he, too, dies at the appointed time.  This leaves only Varya, who is expected to die at age eighty-eight.  Varya is involved in experimental work with primates to prove that lifespan can be increased by severely limiting the intake of particular foods, but at the cost of a comfortable life.  Varya leaves the experiment and the novel ends with Varya, at least thirty years before her appointed death, accompanied by her mother, Gertie, and Klara’s daughter, Ruby, while Ruby puts on a memorable magic show.

Ms Benjamin does a good job in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief regarding the reality of the psychic: we are not surprised when the first three siblings die, nor are we surprised that the police would be investigating.  What I particularly liked about this novel are the emotional connections between the siblings: love, regret and sorrow.  The character of Simon is extremely well drawn: his sense of urgency to experience his homosexuality at the expense of self preservation is clear.  Klara is also a unique character for her fascination with and commitment to magic.

For me, Daniel and Varga are not as clearly defined.  For example, what drives Daniel to confront the old woman mystic with a gun, and what drives Varga to be so preoccupied with her stringent diet when she has little to show for it except longevity.  I am also not clear as to why and how Klara chose suicide, or the character and motivation of Eddie, the policeman.  There is a valid attempt to suffuse the novel with an air of mystery and magic: a very difficult task, which I think is only partially successful.

This is a unique story with potentially very interesting, diverse characters; it has mystery and emotional content; it has great promise.  I’m afraid the editor let the author down slightly.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal