Wow, what a Meeting! I think I counted nine of us there to discuss A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.
Where to begin? Our discussion leader sent out an email asking us to think before the meeting about:
- The body of literary ciriticism characteriizes this book as an enduring American classic. Why?
- Prose style. Can you describe, find examples, and compare to other genres or writers?
- Are there character traits of this author that are brought to the fore in the writing?
As usual there were reports on the life of our author. Several members took extensive notes of passages that were memorable in their ideas or in the writing style...either in a positive or negative way.
Most of the group read the entire book. A few didn't finish it and one did not read it and did not plan to read it after we had discussed it.
Regarding liking it or not, a few didn't like it at all. (I had some reports through email by people who thought they couldn't make the meeting). Some really liked it, and most had ambivalent feelings about it. Most throught that the writing was dated...and not in a good way. Some examples included the way women were represented. Henry's love seemed to be a fantasy of what a man of the time wanted in a woman. In fact the women seemed unrealistic. Drinking seemed to be a major character in the novel. We commented that there are other classics from other eras and even that era whose writing style reflects the times and is still outstanding.
We learned that Hemingway was 19 when he lived some of this story and not much older when he wrote about it. In the biography update, we reviewed his many loves and marriages and noted that his first love, who dated from this time in WWI, dumped him for someone else. What revenge! He gets to kill her off in this novel after making her the perfect love interest. The dialog between the lovers seemed insipid, yet we all liked his Italian male friend and the conversations he had with the priest. Several members agreed that they could not identity with Katherine, that her conversation sounded pedantic, inane, obsessive, childish and immature. On the contrary, others pointed out that we may be judging by our standards and not the standards of the time, or by the view of such young love. How many of us are still with the person we loved at 19. Did our converstations sound silly back then? Did we ever say as Henry or Katherine said, "I would like to BE you." One member thought Hemingway liked women who were never around. One thought he liked a "Stepford wife" type of woman. We commented that Hemingway never showed sex and we thought that was probably due to the expectations of writing in that era. One comment was that we felt like we were in an old black and white movie.
The comment about being in an old black and white movie, brought out our memories of seeing Gary Cooper in the movie made in the early 30s, which brought us to tears by the great love. How did they make such a compelling movie from a book that left many of us cold.
We liked philosophical discussions which showed wisdom and depth. We liked his exposure of the insanity of war. We liked his descriptions of the lands of Italy. One member pointed out that the first chapter sets the whole tone for the book, pointing out that at the start of the winter came the rain and only 7,000 died in the army. The writing was lyrical and precise. Hemingway made the foreign view of war come alive for the reader. There were 3,500 Americans in the Italian army in WWI. Most of them were fighter pilots. We also mentioned the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s where many American men seeking glory and wanting to fight for a cause joined up.
The quote, "Nobody can leave everything behind and follow Christ," raised an interesting conversation about other cultures where wealthy older men become beggars or in the past Northwest Indians had Potlatches where a family gave all thier possession away (a little digression).
Some really liked the time in Switzerland as idyllic. One noted that Henry never paid the man who gave him the boat to escape to Switzerland.
There were quotes people found from Hemingway in his written interviews and television interviews in the later years. He comments on the influcence of the career of a journalist on a writer, helping the novelist master the "simple declarative sentence." The interviewer, George Plimpton, talked about Hemingway's creating the "one true sentence," making it "newer and truer," "making it alive."
We agreed that Hemingway was probably clinically depressed. "You die. They killed you. They gave you syphilis." True...that is the way it was in his reality. He drowned his sorrows in alcohol and also drank as male bonding. He is full of disillusionment and subtle with cynicism.
Hemingway is a minimalist. At times he forgets about punctuation and has stream of consciousness paragraphs. At the end he emphasizes the intensity, by simple repetition of, "Don't let her die, don't let her die, don't let her die," on and on. We thought it was interesting that Hemingway appears not to be religious, but here he was calling out to a god in whom he has no belief.
There was a lot of rain throught this novel...emplasizing the depressing world of WWI in Italy.
So, is it still a classic? We disagreed. Some thought, "Yes," because of the lyrical language, the realistic descriptions of the insanity of war and the strong philosophical conversations. Some thought that the people who like this as still a classic, were not separating the novel from what whe know about Hemingway...as in..."View this novel alone on its own merits." Some commented on the beauty of some of his later works, which indeed seemed works of genious, while this novel left the members bewildered. One literary reviewer has said that this novel is an "enduring American Classic," "layered with emotion."
If this novel was layered with emotion, then Hemingway and his character Henry seemed to "have a lid" on emotions. We thought, however, that men are trained to keep a lid on emotions and even more in past generations. Hemingway was a "man's man." Men looked up to him and women wanted him. We wondered if he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He had obviously seen and lived through horrors. We talked about the execution of retreating officers, who were following their orders to retreat, while the civil police, thought any officer retreating was a deserter. Henry narrowly escaped. Those were gripping scenes.
We talked more of writers who influenced him, quite a stellar group, members of The Lost Generation: Gerturde STein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson.
There was not a strong consensus about this novel. Many like parts of it. Some thought it was still a classic. others thought it was too dated to merit recommending as a great classic...or at all.
As you can see, the converstion wandered, but was very enthusiastic and full of interesting observations. I would think this is a good book to recomment to someone investigating the writing style of Hemingway during his career. It was a memorable first book.
As an addendum to this update: After I emailed this to our group, a member who has not been able to attend lately, emailed that after receiving this report on our meeting, he wanted to let us know how much he disagreed with our less than enthusiastic comments. He thought this was an outstanding book on WWI and the senselessness of war. He comparted it to other foreign language classics on the war, which also had a stream of consciousness style. He thought our negative comments about the love interest and its ups and downs were less than important compared to the other messges of the novel. He even stated that Hemingway was a very important writer, unlike John Steinbeck. (As a Steinbeck fan, I thought those were fighting words.) :>
Branch Manager, Lakeview Branch Library