Tag Archives: A Farewell to Arms

Farewell to ‘Farewell’

Turns out I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We both started Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with high expectations and ended up bored and indifferent. The love affair with Catherine, like the battlefield romance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of the least convincing things I’d read up to that point:

I thought the protagonist fell in love because the book required it, and I never got any firm picture of who Catherine Barkley actually was. The obvious contrast for me is Wharton’s Madame Olenska and Newland Archer, where you see two people falling in love out a kind of need. I don’t really believe in literary romance for romance’s sake. I think love comes from actual places.

Hemingway was the second Certified Great Author I took on as a teenager, after spending a summer and most of the fall reading my way through John Steinbeck. At the time, Hemingway and Steinbeck were often lumped together by reviewers and teachers, which was not simply a mistake but a crashingly obvious mistake I still can’t fathom. Steinbeck could be an astonishingly clunky stylist, but he created undeniably powerful work in a variety of modes: near-documentary realism with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, mock epic with Tortilla Flat, magic realism with Cannery Row, allegory with The Wayward Bus, morality play with The Winter of Our Discontent. Hemingway crafted some of the most beautiful sentences ever set to paper, but he had only one mode, and while he could play it beautifully, in some of the later works — Across the River and Into the Trees anyone? Anyone? — he sounded like Vladimir Horowitz banging on “Chopsticks.”

Steinbeck was chiefly a novelist, though he could so fine work in short stories: see The Long Valley and the story-collection-as-novel The Pastures of Heaven, the book that shows him discovering his true narrative voice. Hemingway’s magic is in the short stories, not the novels.          

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The life and crimes

James Lee Burke hits the nail on the head when he talks about how good crime stories have become the last refuge of the sociological novel. I like to point out that Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, came out in 1929, the same year as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and which novel do you think had more real observations to make about contemporary life? Hammett showed his readers a grimy industrial city where the wealthy and the criminal class had come together to destroy a labor union, and in the aftermath continued in a state of dangerous balance, corrupt from top to bottom and ready to collapse at a touch. As Burke himself notes, James T. Farrell’s  1930s novels about Studs Lonigan were, at heart, crime stories. John D. MacDonald never enjoyed much critical esteem for most of his career, but a book like Bright Orange for the Shroud, centered on a semi-legal real estate scam in mid-1960s Florida, will tell you more about what was turning sour and mean in mid-twentieth-century America than most other novels of its time.

This will no doubt come as a shock to Tom Wolfe, who wore out the shoulders of his ice-cream suits while patting himself on the back for paying attention to American society in The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and his other notebook-dump novels. Those novels had their virtues, but Wolfe didn’t seem to grasp that someone like MacDonald could pack just as much sociological observation into a slender paperback original, all without getting into pissing matches with John Irving.

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The potency of cheap paperback covers

in-our-time

When I started reading Ernest Hemingway, the editions that fell into my teenaged hands were the paperbacks issued under the Scribner Library Contemporary Classics imprint. During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school I was almost never without one of these editions, and whenever I read or even think of For Whom the Bell Tolls, it conjures a double memory: Robert Jordan lying on a hillside in the mountains of Spain, listening to the wind stirring the tops of the pine trees, and the younger me stretched out on a blanket at Darlington Lake, hearing the wind stir the tops of the  trees as I read.

 The nostalgia factor is so strong for me that I stopped dead in my tracks last summer when I spotted the above edition of In Our Time on a swim club book-swap rack. While I’m not actively seeking them out, I’ll probably snap up these editions whenever I see them.

a-farewell-to-arms

The curious thing is that these paperback covers, in contrast with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy titles I rhapsodized about a few months ago, really aren’t very good. In fact, they’re pretty lame — Sunday painter kind of stuff. Which is remarkable, considering that Hemingway is one of the star authors in the Scribner catalogue, maybe even the star author. But even though later editions sported different, substantially better cover art, these rather schlocky looking things will always twang my heartstrings just a bit whenever I see them.

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