I finished A Farewell to Arms today–it was a really quick read–and this will be the last time I ever go from a Steinbeck novel to a Hemingway novel. Their styles are so different that I think I don’t like A Farewell to Arms as much as I may have. One reason for this is because, if you know anything about Hemingway, you know that his prose is short and succinct. Where Steinbeck gives the reader an epic description of a sunset, the tilled earth, and a grasshopper Hemingway tells the reader that it is cold and muddy. And it works it really does there is something about his sparse style that is really gripping and leaves you wanting more. He gives you the bare essentials and then moves on; it’s almost like watching a chase movie where you have to watch it a few times before you catch everything. Since this is one of Hemingway’s earlier novels, however, it is also not as strong or polished as his later works and it is easy to tell that he is still trying to perfect his style. All that would be forgivable if it wasn’t for the fact that the I hated the characters.
A Farewell to Arms is a love story set in World War I betwixt Lieutenant Fredric Henry, an American serving with the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley–a British nurse. There are a lot of good elements in this story and some very good scenes, but the crux of the story depends on the love affair between the two protagonists, and that element fails. I never for a second believe in or care about these two characters. Catherine Barkley seems like a precursor to the babbling bitches from The Hills that infect our airwaves on a daily basis. The dialog between the two is mind-numbingly terrible and reminds me of the high school couple that would argue about who is going to hang up first. Bleeetch. Henry doesn’t fair much better. He is developed a bit better than Catherine, and instead of being one-dimensional he is one and a half dimensional. They basically become two characters who I don’t care much about and I tend to root against instead of for. Their first few meetings are cringe worthy and I totally don’t buy their summer love-affair, but that’s just me maybe I’m just a cynical Grinch. Lucky for me it’s a Hemingway novel so you know that it isn’t going to have some crappy Disney fairy book ending. For me the last thirty pages made up for the first 300. If you have read For Whom the Bells Toll then you know what Hemingway is capable of. The relationship between Robert Jordan and Maria is so much more compelling. By that time Hemingway’s style was set, his dialogue was great, the story was amazing so I think that maybe I was expecting a bit too much out of this one.
There is still a lot to like about this book despite the fact that it’s never going to be, for me, one of those epic books. Even in this early stage Hemingway’s sentence construction is fascinating, and there is really no one else that does it like him. He will go from a regular sentence, to a long sentence, to a three or four word sentence that concludes his point succinctly. Most of his sentences though are brief. He also has this habit where he will overuse ‘and’ in one sentence and then not use it in the next sentence in an obvious situation. Like I mentioned above his descriptive prose left a lot to be desired but the more I read of it the more I liked the sparse descriptions. It works especially well when the characters are in life or death scenarios and instead of plodding through these he briskly describes them and then moves on quickly giving the reader a sense of immediacy that would not come as easily with long plodding prose. If I want pointers on how to write a brief concise sentence Hemingway is the man. It’s not as easy as it sounds especially for people who like to write and who like to be as thorough as possible in all of their sentences. Sometimes it is easy to forget how much can be said with just a few words. If this book was a movie I would say wait for the DVD. It’s worth reading if you’re a fan of Hemingway, but don’t buy it just check it out from the public library. I will refrain from leaving an excerpt this time too as the only part I would like to excerpt might spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it and want to read it. Tomorrow I will start Team of Rivals and hopefully I can finish that before school starts.