Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.
I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.
This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.
‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’
Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’
Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.
Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.
This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.
This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :
‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’
During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :
‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’
There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :
‘All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’
‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’
‘That’s more likely’
‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’
Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :
‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’
At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :
‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’
This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.
My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.
Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.