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.
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.