Hemingway’s stint as an ambulance driver with the Italian Red Cross during WWI was the driving force (pun intended) behind A Farewell to Arms. Its genius lies in its seemingly simplistic writing that realistically depicts young love, soldiers’ introspections, atrocities of war and life’s inevitable tragedies.
An American, Lt. Henry, is serving in the Italian army as an ambulance driver and is well respected by his superiors and subordinates. He is smitten by an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, who is still heartbroken over the death of her fiance, yet she feels a mutual attraction to the young American.
Henry is sent to the front, is injured and sent to Milan to recover. Catherine manages to get transferred there and she and Henry become inseparable.
The lovers must eventually part as Henry is sent back to the front, but the politics of war take on a life of their own and an intended retreat by the Italians results in casualties similar to those suffered at the front.
And there is drinking, lots and lots of drinking. No surprise there. Hemingway portrays alcohol with the love and affection of a doting parent.
The novel’s central character, Lt. Frederic Henry is serving the Italian army during WWI as an ambulance driver. He drinks, visits prostitutes and travels throughout the country on his down time. He has become indifferent to the war, like those around him and seems to be going through the motions without much enthusiasm. It would seem simple to dislike a man who shrugs off the dead and dying, drinks in excess and stays in touch with family only to receive money, yet he is a man to be admired. His humanity reveals itself in ebbs and flows and we see a young man become dispirited from life in a war zone.
Lt. Henry’s love is Catherine Barkley, an English V.A.D. (assistant nurse, yes, I had to look that one up). When first they meet, Catherine seems a little loopy, talking about love and devotion as though they’d been together for a while, rather than just met. The love talk was even a bit annoying at times, but we come to see it as young lover’s lingo and as a way to show her still unresolved grief over her fiance’s untimely death. Even so, she grated my nerves with her submissiveness.
Count Greffi, a 94-year-old acquaintance of Henry’s enjoys his long life. He and Henry play billiards while sipping champagne and enjoy stimulating each other’s intellect. Surely, this is the man Henry, or shall we say, Ernest hoped to one day be.
With a bottle or two at hand, I’d sip slowly from my glass while the master would enjoy his more generously poured libation as to warm up for an afternoon of storytelling. I’d try hard not to swoon, but it would be difficult in the presence of Papa H.
My rating for A Farewell to Arms is a 10 out of 10.
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