A Farewell to Arms (Modern Library #74)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Scoop.)

You likely know the basics: An American goes to Italy and enlists as a “tenente.” He drives a battlefield ambulance just before his nation enters World War I. He gets wounded. He meets a nurse at a hospital. He falls in love. He feels free as he recovers. He feels trapped as he returns to the front. He gets disillusioned. He flees. He finds her again. Bad things happen. But A Farewell to Arms is so much more than this. It is a heartbreaking love story. It is a remarkably subtle indictment of war. It shows how people bury their romantic longings behind duty and how there’s a greater bravery in fulfilling what you owe to your heart. It argues for life and love. Its final paragraph is devastating. It zooms along with masterly prose that is buried with treasure. It is one of the greatest novels of the early 20th century. This statement is not hyperbole.

It is now quite fashionable to bash Hemingway rather than praise him, as the flip Paul Levy recently did in his oh so hip and not very bright “hot take”: “The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure.” Well, sure it is. I’ve read it all three times at different periods in my life and I don’t think any honest reader would deny that. When I was an obnoxious punk in my twenties, I resisted Hem big time, feeling that he could not teach me to be a man in the way that James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald had, yet I somehow held onto his books, sensing that I could be colossally wrong. (I was.) Even today, I have to acknowledge that To Have and Have Not is an embarrassment. The Garden of Eden is an interesting but unconsummated train wreck. For Whom the Bell Tolls has its moments, but the Old English verbs and the lack of subtlety can be risible. I’ve never quite been able to leap into The Old Man and the Sea, but that says more about me than Hem. The upshot is that there are quite a few clunkers in Hem’s collected works and some of the Nick Adams tales ain’t all that, but one could make this claim about any author. In the end, when you have a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms that never grows tedious no matter how many times you reread it, who in the hell cares about the misses? There’s no profit in calculating a shallow statement when the crown jewels shine bright in your face.

The other way that people ding Hem these days is by singling out his macho posturing or peering at his pages through the prism of unbridled masculine hubris. The naysayers dismiss Lady Brett Astley in The Sun Also Rises as an archetype without recognizing her enigma or the way she aptly epitomized the Lost Generation. They don’t acknowledge how Hem had to prostrate himself before Beryl Markham in a letter to Maxwell Perkins and that he did get on (for a time) with Martha Gellhorn, who neither suffered fools nor caved to condescension.

Yet there is certainly something to Hemingway’s women problem, especially as seen in the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In June 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hem a letter and observed how, in his early work, “you were really listening to women — here you’re only listening to yourself, to your own mind beating out facily a sort of sense that isn’t really interesting.” (Hemingway’s reply: “Kiss my ass.”)

Scott’s warning remains a very shrewd assessment on what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Hemingway. I’d argue that one of the best ways to ken Hem is to recognize that he was a wildly accomplished giant when he placed his own ego last and that any transgressions that today’s readers detect only emerged when Hem became overly absorbed in his own self. And on this point, one can find a strange sympathy for the man, thanks in part to Andrew Farah’s recent biography, Hemingway’s Brain, which points to Ernest’s many head injuries (which included nine concussions) and concludes that he suffered from CTE, the brain disease seen in professional football players after too many years of violent tackles. This theory, which takes into account the decline of Hemingway’s handwriting in his latter years, would also offer an explanation for the wildly disparate writing quality and thus invalidates Mr. Levy’s foolish pronouncement.

* * *

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

A Farewell to Arms thankfully places us shortly after the rising sun of Hem’s career and, like its predecessor, the book contains razor-sharp prose, keen observations (ranging from Umberto Notani’s infamous The Black Pig, trains packed with soldiers, and the repugnant wartime indignity of a hopped up tyrant fiercely questioning a man who is fated to be shot), and a beautiful epitomization of the famous “iceberg theory” that Hemingway posited in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Much has been spilled over Hemingway’s declarative sentences, which are beautifully honed in this masterpiece. (Hem wrote 47 versions of the ending.) But I’d like to single out “was,” the most frequently used word in this novel. On a surface level, “was” is the most expedient way to hurl us into Frederic’s world: a simple verb of action and hard deets, but one that likewise deflects interior thought. It’s easy to dis Hem as a man’s man summing up life and the earth and the grit and all else that makes us want to ape him even though there can be only one, but the key to seeing the beauty of “was” is knowing that this book is all about pursuing a lost and deeply moving romantic vision, one kept carefully hidden from the beginning. Style advances the perspective and keeps us curious and lets us in and “was” is the way Hem gets us there.

Hemingway uses language with extraordinary command to clue us in on the distinct possibility that this story is in some sense a dream — indeed, a dream involving death based on what Hem was never able to make with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while holed up in a ward. There’s the makeshift hospital office, with its “many marble busts on painted wooden pillars,” which is further compared to a cemetery. In the novel’s first part, there are very few adverbs — save “winefully” early on and “evidently” and “directly” in the same sentence as guns rupture Frederic’s existence. The first rare simile (“seeing it all ahead like moves in a chess game”) occurs when Frederic first tries to kiss Catherine and is greeted with a slap (which Catherine apologizes for). This is a far cry indeed from what The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra recently claimed, without citing a single example, as “flowery and overwritten.” A Farewell to Arms basks in the same beautiful realm between the real and the ethereal that The Great Gatsby does, albeit in a different landscape altogether, but it offers enough ambiguity to speculate about the characters while encouraging numerous rereads.

Language also carries the deep resonances of what people mean to each other. Catherine cannot stand a triple-wounded vet named Ettore and repeats “dreadful” twice and “bore” four times when she vents to Frederic. The words “She won’t die” are also repeated in one harrowing paragraph near the end. (Indeed, if you see a word or a phrase repeated in Hemingway’s fiction, there’s a good chance that something bad will happen.) Shortly after Frederic is moved to the freshly built hospital in Milan (itself a marvelous metaphor for the fresh start of Frederic’s blossoming love for Catherine), he takes to Dr. Valentini, who speaks in a series of short sentences over the course of a paragraph (a small sample: “A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl.”) and who Frederic later calls “grand.” The syntax, chopped and sheared and housed within manageable units, represents a telegraph from the human heart like no other.

Frederic acknowledges that he lies to Catherine when he tells her that she’s the first woman he’s loved. Now it’s tempting to roll your eyes over the “I’ll be a good girl” business that often comes from Catherine, but it’s also a safe bet to speculate that Frederic is likewise lying about what Catherine has actually told him, much as Hem himself has fudged the full extent of his “affair” with Agnes von Kurowsky through fiction. (“Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has,” wrote von Kurowsky in her diary on August 25, 1918. “He is a dear boy & so cute about it.”)

An enduring romance is often built on a pack of lies. We often fail to recognize the full totality of who a lover was until we are well outside of the relationship. As for friendship, I’d like to argue that Miss Gage is a fascinating side character who stands up for this. She’s someone who ribs Frederic about not fully understanding what friendship is. Later, when Frederic returns to the front lines, Rinaldi tells him, “I don’t want to be your friend. I am your friend.” And if Frederic can’t recognize friendship, does he really know how to read the room when Cupid shows up with a puckish smile? Hem’s subtle acknowledgment of these basic truths allows us to trust and become invested in Frederic’s voice. And I’d like to think that even Hem’s opponents could get behind such idyllic imagery as Frederic and Catherine “putting thoughts in the other one’s head while we were in different rooms” or agreeing to sneak off to Switzerland together or even the funny “winter sport” business with customs. These are endearing and beautiful romantic moments that certainly show that Hem is far more than a repugnant hulk.

Love is a high stakes game, but it’s always a game worth playing. If you beat the odds, the payout is incalculable. Small wonder that the happy couple ends up throwing their lire into a rigged horse race. Indeed, Frederic’s early days with Catherine are a game like bridge where “you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes.” For all of Frederic’s apparent confidence in not knowing the stakes, he does not reveal his name for a while — on its first mention, Frederic only partially spills his name as he is drinking. He is also more taken with the allure of being alone — as seen later in a Donnean nod when he says that “[w]hat made [Ireland] pretty was that it sounded like Island.” His loneliness is further cemented when Miss Ferguson says that Catherine cannot see him.

Is this the loneliness of war? We learn later that Frederic came to Rome to be an architect, although this is likely a lie, given that it is repeated a second time to a customs officer. But it does suggest that Frederic cannot build his own life without another. Perhaps this is the solitude that comes from the relentless pursuit of manly vigor (boxing, bullfighting, hunting) that Hemingway was to explore throughout his life? There is one clue late in the book when Hemingway writes, “The war seemed as far away as the football game of someone else’s college,” and another midway through when Frederic wonders if major league baseball will be shut down if America entered the war. (Fun fact: There was indeed a World War I deadline put into place, but the two leagues squeezed in numerous doubleheaders to ensure that the season could play out.) If the First World War arose in part because humanity was involved in a vicious game, then Hemingway seems to be suggesting that further games rooted in play and peace must be promulgated to restore the human condition. Frederic cynically quips to the 94-year-old Count Greffi, “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” But if being careful is the true measure of existence, why then do we celebrate valor that often emerges from reckless circumstances? Indeed, Hemingway sends up the very nature of heroism up when Frederic wakes up in the hospital and is greeted by Rinaldi, who presses him to confess the specific act he committed to earn his medal. “No,” replies Frederic. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

In an age where razor blade ads are urging us to question what manhood should represent, there’s something to be said about studying what’s contained within masculinity’s ostensible ur-texts and with how careful men are in saying nothing but everything. A Farewell to Arms is a far more sophisticated and deeply beautiful novel when you start examining its sentences and questioning its motivations. Caught in a mire between love and war, Frederic opts for the laconic rather than the prolix. And in doing so, he tells us far more about what it means to love and lose than most authors can convey in a lifetime.

Next Up: Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust!

Sarah Churchwell (The Bat Segundo Show #535)

Sarah Churchwell is most recently the author of Careless People.

Author: Sarah Churchwell

Play

Subjects Discussed: Max Gerlach and the possible origins of “old sport,” the current conditions of Fitzgerald’s scrapbook, working in the Princeton Archives, sifting through digital facsimiles, tape marks and PDFs, Fitzgerald’s “self-Googling,” illusory objects balanced on the edges of noses, balancing Gatsby‘s surrealism against real-world parallels, Gatsby as a distorted mirror to the 1920s, present-day misconceptions about the 1920s, history and imagination, Fitzgerald scholars arguing over niceties, analytical types who suck the joy out of novels, the hunt for facts that surprise the scholar, developing rules for inclusion, playing the game of “Who knew?” with Gatsby, what swastikas meant in 1922, wrangling through the variegated meanings of the green light, the risk of divagating from novels, Childs Restaurants, the New York Public Library’s extraordinary online menu collection, the hostility to close reading, Mary McCarthy’s Pale Fire review, Edmund Wilson’s role in restoring Fitzgerald’s reputation and his relationship with Gatsby, the effect of John Keats’s life and work on Gatsby, the difficulty of determining Fitzgerald’s compositional approach during Gatsby, Fitzgerald and the Romantics, Fitzgerald’s terrible French, the benefits of not reading living writers while working on a masterpiece, Zelda and Scott trading off lines and witticisms, Zelda’s influence on Gatsby, Zelda’s critical mind, how to distinguish Scott and Zelda’s writing, the helpful scholarship of James L.W. West III, Fitzgerald’s fear of being compared with Robert W. Chambers’s romantic fiction, Burton Rascoe, why Fitzgerald was so concerned with his reception, how Churchwell tracked down an obscure Rascoe review, Fitzgerald’s touchiness and his need for reassurance, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing grab for literary respectability (and failure to get it) with Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s decline, Fitzgerald’s terrible spelling and This Side of Paradise, the Fitzgeralds’s trip to Europe in 1924, the Fitzgeraldian notion of holding two simultaneous ideas (or emotions) in a first-rate mind, Gatsby as a hymn to ambivalence, Zelda’s affairs in response to boredom, Fitzgerald’s unkindness to women in his fiction, 1920s etymology, Fitzgerald as the first man to use “cocktail” as a verb, guarding against linguistic anachronism, the development of merchant banking language during the 1920s, the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library, Eckleberg, the numerous large eyes within Gatsby, blindness and vision, racism during the 1920s, Edith Wharton’s anti-Semitism, Meyer Wolfsheim a Jewish stereotype, Thomas Powers’s essay in the LRB, Arnold Rothstein, Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, whether or not Fitzgerald can be called an anti-Semite, Tom Buchanan’s white supremacy, “The Crack-Up,” being judged by character vs. being judged by social conditions, Wendy Smith’s review in Newsday, specious connections between Gatsby and the Hall-Mills murder case, Nancy Mitford’s lie about “Zelda and her abortionist” picked up by five other biographers, mistaken identity as part of the 1922 discourse, Leopold and Loeb, Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan, William Desmond Taylor’s murder, Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, serving as Booker judge, contending with the Booker Prize’s inclusion of American titles and the concomitant complaints about preferring British or American titles over the other, the Folio Prize’s American titles, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize’s “no winner” controversy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m really jazzed up because only a few days ago, you forced me to reread The Great Gatsby. And it was still great after four times! Have you ever gotten sick of that book?

Churchwell: No, I really haven’t. That’s why I wrote a book that’s kind of a tribute to it. And I got to live with it for five years. I got to reread it over and over and over.

Correspondent: How many times have you read it?

Churchwell: I don’t know. Because I’ve read it sequentially at least half a dozen times. But also I was going in and out of it. And so, all told, probably hundreds of times.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, let’s start with the marvelous year of 1922. The year in which the book is set, The Great Gatsby, and the year in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. You point out that scholars have used the reference to “a waste land” during that one description of the ash heaps as the smoking gun that Fitzgerald intended Gatsby as a literary homage to that particular year. But Fitzgerald was also to note in his “Ten Best Books I Have Ever Read” that Ulysses is “the great novel of the future.” So what is the true source really of the 1922 setting? And to what degree is it a mistake to assign a kind of explicit literary interpretation or homage to either Eliot or Joyce?

Churchwell: I think there are a couple of other meanings to 1922, which of course is the year that Fitzgerald sets Gatsby. And, yes, I think he is tipping his hat to those great writers of 1922 and to those two great works in particular. It’s also the year that the first English translation of Swann’s Way came out. So Proust is also making his way into that year. But it’s also the year that Scott and Zelda move to Long Island and began the parties that would inspire the novel. It was in 1922 in the summer that Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins announcing that he wanted to write the novel that would become Gatsby. So I think in his head, there were a lot of reasons why 1922 was the right year to set the novel.

Correspondent: Did he ever toy around with other years?

Churchwell: He did actually in draft. He wrote 1921. He wrote 1923. So he always knew that he wanted it to be a modern novel. He wrote it in 1924. So it was always going to be the recent past. And then he finally settles on 1922. And we can only speculate as to why that is. Maybe it was totally random. But it doesn’t seem like it was. And then he went back and he tried to adjust the math and to make sure that everything worked out for it to be set in 1922.

Correspondent: Yeah. He had this really terrible thing about double digits. $13.13 at the end. That’s sad.

Churchwell: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: I was really bummed out at the end when Fitzgerald is on the decline. I’m like, “Oh, come on, Scott! You can do it!”

Churchwell: I know.

Correspondent: “Don’t let the world beat you down!”

Churchwell: It’s so sad, but the world did beat him down in exactly that way that you just said. I mean, his last royalty check was $13.13.

Correspondent: I know.

Churchwell: It is crazy. But his life was in this really uncanny way, it often tended to be symbolic in that way. Life just kind of showered him with symbolism all the time. Even the bad kind.

Correspondent: When you live a life where you’re surrounded by subconscious doubles, inevitably subconscious doubles will appear in your work.

Churchwell: Exactly.

Correspondent: You also point out — and it’s worth reminding — that Fitzgerald had this deep admiration for Joseph Conrad. You quote Conrad’s line, “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” And you point to the middle-man inscription he offered to Gene Buck. You also note that Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, they performed this drunken dance outside the Doubleday Estate in May 1923, only to be unceremoniously ejected by the night watchmen. I’m wondering. How obsessive was Fitzgerald about Conrad? Were you able to find any direct Gatsby lineage from Conrad or anything?

Churchwell: Not quite. But he was very open about his admiration for Conrad. And Conrad was certainly an important writer for him. In fact, one of the novels that Fitzgerald said was the novel that he wished he had written more than any other novel was Conrad’s Nostromo.

Correspondent: Nostromo, yeah.

Churchwell: Which is a novel that a lot of people…

Correspondent: …don’t read anymore.

Churchwell: …don’t read anymore. It’s really Heart of Darkness that tends to be the one.

Correspondent: Or even Lord Jim.

Churchwell: Or even Lord Jim. He definitely loved Lord Jim. I’ve seen Lord Jim in various places in his work. I think that where Conrad really comes into Gatsby most obviously is in the use of Nick Carraway as both character and narrator the way that Conrad used Marlow in several of his novels, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And it was understanding the way that that technique could help him tell his story, I think, that is Conrad’s greatest influence on Gatsby.

Correspondent: Did he really see novels as that history that Conrad said that it was?

Churchwell: I think he did absolutely. I mean, his novels tended to be contemporary. They tended to be drawn very much from his own experiences and based on people that he knew or had met. Most of his best work is, in some sense, based on these composite characters. So the character of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night is partly Fitzgerald, it’s partly his friend Gerald Murphy, and he kind of morphs the two together.

Correspondent: As any writer does really.

Churchwell: Absolutely. I mean, it’s something he had a big argument with Hemingway about. Because Hemingway said of Tender is the Night that this was an illegitimate technique. He got kind of high-handed and announced that there were some ways that you were allowed to write fiction and some ways that you’re not allowed to write fiction. Which is a bit rich coming from Hemingway, given that The Sun Also Rises is very much a roman à clef. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. And what’s also terrible about Hemingway is his treatment of Fitzgerald. I mean, Fitzgerald is really on the down and out and he’s still saying, “Yes, yes, Ernest is putting out all these great books,” and Hemingway is basically totally shit-talking him the entire time. Which is really sad!

Churchwell: It is sad. Hemingway was not adverse to kicking Fitzgerald when he was down. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) No! He must have had some machismo thing.

Churchwell: (laughs) Ya think?

(Loops for this program provided by JamieVega, JoeFunktastic, 40a, seankh, and kristijann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #535: Sarah Churchwell (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced