Conversations with Hemingway (14)

The Revolution titled A Farewell to Arms

Thursday, May 13, 2010

10 AM. All right, papa. As you will know from tuning into this station, I found A Farewell To Arms different this time. Perhaps because I had just come from your later works, I found this one disappointing in the love story, riveting in the war story, for a total effect that was much less than The Sun Also Rises, which had been written earlier, or, of course, Bell or The Old Man.

You are reading with the benefit and this advantage of hindsight. You can see how the work falls down, but it is much harder for you to see how revolutionary it is, how hard-edged, next to the novels that were being published at the same time.

This is not the same thing as pleading for mercy. It says, in itself it succeeded so well that its very revolutionary features have become a part of the culture, and so they blend into the landscape.

Those features are mostly the description of the war, I suppose.

No, the romance too. If you knew the conventions of the time you would know that the very casual assumption of the romance was a revolution.

She didn’t feel guilty! They didn’t bother with forms! Their relationship proceeded more or less without reference to society except occasionally. Ferguson showed them (and reminded the reader) from time to time, and Catherine felt it acutely for a few minutes in the transit hotel when she said it was the first time she felt like a whore — but mostly they proceeded innocently and without reference to religious rules or social mores or even, strictly speaking, legalities. And the narrator took it all for granted, you see, rather than moralizing about it. Nor did she die because she had sinned. She died because life handed out meaningless death — to her, to Aymo, to how many millions of soldiers, animals, civilians, trees, buildings —

You state that very clearly. As so often, it is a curious feeling to not know, then have my pen explain, and then know.

Now maybe you can see that A Farewell ought to be looked at in two ways. It is an enduring work of an author, yes, but as time passes it will be seen as a less and less important work, because it was mainly a shot in a battle, or a battle in a war, and the battle or war won, the shot or battle is less important. It is more a means to an end, you might say, than an end in itself.

So its flaws of composition don’t matter. Yes, it seems shapeless for those who don’t notice that the journey in each case separates out the books, and yes, if you are most interested in the war, the romance is a sort of interruption and their subsequent married life — call it that — a long irrelevance tacked on for no particular reason. But this is only for those who don’t understand. Those who see it clearly see why. Max did.

I see that. Interestingly, though, I still can’t help seeing it through your later work and of the Sun, too, and feeling that it fights against itself somehow.

Yes, it does, and in its way that was revolutionary too. It wasn’t lack of skill. He was immersed in Army life, and she came to him as a puzzle to solve so that he could get sexual satisfaction. He was used to getting it by telling the necessary lies, and he never expected anything more than a chess game until he got it. The fact that she was so suddenly in love with him showed him there was something wrong with her — she was crazy, for reasons stemming (as he eventually found out) from her own romantic history, in which she had behaved conventionally and bitterly regretted it; knew that she had made the wrong choice. She had no support in conventional morality after that, and never had had any firm religion, and so she was adrift, you could say. She had to make up her own rules as she went along, and this before he did, for at first and for a long time he just was a soldier among soldiers, a man among men, even if a foreigner. It wasn’t until he was almost shot that he wound up in the same predicament she was in — he had followed the rules and it had worked out badly, so he had to start making his own rules.

Frederick Henry isn’t as far along as Jake Barnes, you see. By the time of Sun, it’s several years later and Jake has had several years of being crippled. He has had time to experience prolonged consequences. He has worked out his own rules of conduct and his terms of being in the world. He bought his way and had his fun as best he could, and mostly had a satisfactory life — in the daytime. Jake is what Frederick would become in a few years: wounded but whole, whole but irretrievably wounded.

Frederick Henry sought a sexual conquest, and to his surprise found love. Found that he could feel love, and give love, and in this sense live in love. That changed him. It made him vulnerable in a whole new way, and he had to learn to live with that. Until then he had been floating with the tide, cut off emotionally from his family at home for reasons never explained (because they don’t matter) and cut off yet connected to his army friends because he was in another country’s army, yet he was sharing the experience. He had Rinaldi, and the priest, and the others were acquaintances, even if very close and long-term acquaintances. The wound separated him from them — and brought him to Catherine — and when he returned to the Army, he did not really return to them. He was a part of the Army when he was wounded. He was a part of Catherine when he returned from the hospital.

So the whole book is his progression from emotional isolation while in an Army and in a cause he more or less still believed in, to emotional involvement with one specific woman, to separation from the Army and (by the manner in which the separation occurred) emotional divorce from the Army and the cause, to physical separation from the cause, the Army, the war, the country — his whole past life as far as the reader had been told that life. And then, when it was just him and her — she too was taken. The baby was never central in his thought, except as a potential danger, and a potential wedge between him and her in the life they would have after the birth.

The book is an expression of one state of mind — life takes everything, sooner or later. I didn’t have being dead to remember, or maybe it would’ve had a different tone!

Well, maybe you could write that book now, through me or someone else. Or maybe you’re right it next time, if you have a next time.

It won’t be necessary. When enough people make it clear that death really isn’t the end except as the end of a chapter, which it certainly is, then everything about life and death will change again, as you well know.

Whew. Less than an hour, but I’m tired. Always an amazing, rewarding process, but not so different from ordinary life when we ponder things and let wisdom percolate up.

No, not so different. Not different at all. That’s what it is.

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