A Farewell to Hemingway

italHe ain’t bad. But a real sticking point to guys who went to high school 70-years behind him, was that his work seemed dated. There is no way our…that is to say today’s bitches would talk to us like that. “There isn’t any me anymore. Just what you want.” “You’re pretty wonderful.” WTF??? Maybe the Women’s Liberation Movement wasn’t such a bad thing after all. We’re not kidding!

Hemmingway’s stark style was notable. Subject, verb, object and repeat. Also, if you are looking for wit, language or character development, please see another novel. That said, this is an acknowledged classic. To deny that would be to say Babe Ruth was fat and couldn’t play for today’s New York Mets. There are people, books, ideas, that stand above their peers and warrant respect. Along these lines, our discussion of the book’s context likened it to watching an old movie. You need overlook the caricatured characters and hammy acting to appreciate what the writer wants to impart. From that perspective A Farewell to Arms had enough content to merit praise without having to rely on a free pass based on the lost context.

The main character, Tenente, seemed like an average chap. In fact he likens himself to a .230 hitter, but everywhere he went he found an old acquaintance to have a vermouth or cognac with, nurses marveled at his lovely temperature, he read many a newspaper and calls Othello the N-word. He also pays locals to do everything for him. Even as he convalesces in a Milan hospital, he has everyone on his payroll running errands or holding train seats. It’s not clear why this American joined the Italian Army since, unlike San Francisco’s Ettore Moretti, he is not motivated by glory or sacrifice for Mother Italy.

Like most drunks, Lieutenant Henry can get philosophical. When speaking to a pre-syphilitic Rinaldi about how the war might end he wonder about the wisdom of the defeatist peasants who have been inhaled off their farms by the Italian Army for wartime service. “That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.” The reader knows he has hit on a certainty and an equitable peace would be brought about in short order by a peasant intelligencia. Later, while waiting in the hospital he provides a unyielding view of death and elucidates it with a story of his own failure to play messiah to log full of ants in the fire. God happened to be too busy filling his cup with whiskey to save the fated ants.

Aaaah, Catherine. You are bonkers. While holding off the frisky Frederic, she seemed large and in charge, but when she falls for him, she must have hit her head on something on the way down because she falls apart. Her friend Nurse Ferguson warns Catherine that fooling around with one of these wounded warriors will be her undoing. Fergie turns out to be prescient and all but calls her a slut as she exits the novel. Catherine does get off one of the books best lines: “Darling, please be sensible. It’s not deserting from the army. It’s only the Italian army.” Funny, but unfair. The Austrian-Italian front was brutal. With Italy dropping out of the Triple Alliance, then joining the Allies for assurances that could annex the southern Tyrol, enraged Austria’s Tyrolian-born War Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf and he vowed to punish his hereditary enemy, which he did.

The group agreed this was not a war or anti-war novel, but a love story set in a war. The book is recognized for its vivid description of the Italian retreat after Caporetto, however it doesn’t share much beyond a traffic jam. An unnecessary shooting and a narrow river escape wrapped up in the retreat provided much of the books action. The balance of the action involves all of the hauling of Tenente’s baggage by flunkies. We’re still mad at the bartender for not rowing Frederic and Catherine to Switzerland. After all, Tenente “nearly sent him some pipe-tobacco once.”

This wasn’t a great Book Club book. The only issue participants disagreed on was whether this was a classic. Whether it is or isn’t, it is likely Papa will continue his torture of high school students for years to come.

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