Friday, September 11, 2009

finished A FAREWELL TO ARMS

I feel like I don't have a whole lot to say in terms of a review--but anyone else read it? I'd love to "chat" about thoughts and feelings.

Mine being

[SPOILERS, DON'T READ FURTHER!!]

that dang, I didn't see that ending coming. Also, it's not exactly a cheerful book, is it?


I liked the prose, which was often vivid and, especially in the war scenes, very direct at conveying the reality of the action. It struck me--unexpectedly--as cinematic.

I did often feel distanced from Henry in terms of feeling, though, and I didn't really buy a lot of the interaction with Katherine.

I did like it a lot, but maybe I was expecting something... other than what it was.

Also, I wonder at the use of the N-word in the text, which even taken in the context of the usage seems, well, just racist of Hemingway (and his character). Do we forgive Hemingway racism because of when he wrote? I personally feel like the answer should be no. But... we do, don't we?

5 comments:

M. said...

It's been awhile since I read A Farewell to Arms, but I'm game for a discussion.

For a guy with a reputation for the manliest of manliness, his novels do a surprisingly good job of deconstructing and dispelling the mystique of strong, silent, virile manhood. We're distanced from Henry by Hemingway's impartial (sometimes ruthlessly so) narrative voice, but doesn't Henry do the same thing by distancing himself from his own emotions via alcoholism, stoicism, and sex? The irony of Henry's choice to pursue self-annihilation by saving others as an ambulance driver fascinates me, too.

I didn't feel any real emotional connection to Katherine either, but I don't know that there their relationship was meant to be anything but superficial and desperate -- it seemed to be more a matter of escapism than love on both their parts even after they desert to Switzerland.

As for his racism, I don't think that not excusing his racism and viewing his racism as a product of the sociocultural context in which he lived are mutually exclusive propositions. It's the same outlook that allows me to enjoy Don Quixote but still be uncomfortable with its anti-semitic elements. The exception, I think, is when the racism in the work becomes so thematically dominant that the reader cannot enjoy the text without on some level accepting its racist ideals (Rudyard Kipling springs readily to mind).

moonrat said...

Right. Good point re: Kipling (whom I NEARLY mentioned in this review, but decided not to--and for a reason). You're right; the thematic pervasiveness is a problem more than the occurrence of a racist term in the text. Over all, as my reading of this book gets farther behind me, I'm seeing that it made a stronger impression, and I'm more willing to forgive the single (and kind of floating) use of the N-word.

Then again, for context, there are white writers from the same period you know are aware of racist issues and who address them without engaging in them--which makes you wonder why Hemingway couldn't have done the same. So easy! just not using that word. But let's let him off the hook, this once--as true to character, or something. It rankles me, but there are other interesting things to talk about, too.

Interesting point re: both Henry and Katherine having only "loved" out of desperation--there certainly is a lot of pageantry and not a lot of substance in their relationship. It turns out, though, that Henry was actually a lot more dangerous for Katherine than the war was. Sad irony.

Thanks for your comments, M. It's nice to be engaged in discussion! That's why I love this blog.

M. said...

Oh good, so I'm not the only one who immediately thinks of Kipling whenever the subject of racism in literature comes up. I suppose that's the sort of legacy you get when you write "The White Man's Burden."

The reason why Hemingway didn't approach racist issues in the same way as those other white writers you mentioned may simply be that he really was a racist. When people enjoy an author's work, they tend to idealize the person and ignore all the bad things lurking in their biography. For example, there are plenty of scholars out there who have done their level best to dismiss or explain away the rape charges that were brought against Chaucer not because they have some objective scholarly insight into the matter -- in fact, we know absolutely nothing about the charges except that they existed -- but because they love the things he wrote.

Speaking of Katherine, I never got the impression that Henry was wracked by grief over her death. If anything, it seems like the thing that would really disturb him is the dawning realization that there's nothing left to distract him from himself now that he no longer has Katherine or the war to distract him. The walk back to the hotel in the rain has a rather funereal quality to it, but the scene seems to be more of a requiem for Henry than Katherine.

And thank you for your comments, moonrat -- the opportunity to discuss great books is the reason I signed up for this blog.

moonrat said...

me too :)

Camille said...

I think Henry's use of the N-word shows his cynicism in general. Not just that, but the way he talks to his friends at times as well. I cringed when I saw that word as well. After Catherine died at the end, everything after that was rather abrupt. However, I kept going back to the part of the book where he is begging God to not let her die. I think there was love there. He also had a special love for the priest. I think the priest and Catherine represented something rather pure to Henry in his very impure life filled with violence and betrayal. I think their relationship was rather unique due to the war and their experiences. I don't fully understand it, but maybe I'm not suppose to.