I was recently watching the First Tuesday Bookclub hosted by Jennifer Byrne on the ABC recently and they were discussing this book. Most panelists raved about A Farewell To Arms, except the show’s host.
I’d always meant to get around to Hemingway, so I thought I’d give this particular novel a go. Jennifer Byrne criticised the book as being utterly bland in its writing style.
To my surprise, I very much agree with Jennifer Byrne’s critique. This is probably the blandest prose I have ever read. I know there are ‘understated’ writers, or minimalist writers, who eschew too many fancy effects and like to keep their prose as pure as possible of any excessively wordy adulterations. But this is ridiculous!
Hemingway’s simple, unaffected prose for me was lacking in any kind of expression. In fact, it's lifeless. I could not figure out what he was trying to say. I was baffled as to what the whole point of the book was.
Usually with this kind of style the sum of the whole eventually adds up to a picture or theme or statement.
I mean, there’s supposed to be this great love story at the centre of A Farewell To Arms, a relationship between an average man and woman, yet there’s just not enough – for me – expressiveness. This leaves me, as a reader, struggling for understanding.
Plus the juxtapositions of the novel don’t seem particularly thought out. The main character is working at the war front, and suffers some terrible injuries. Then he falls in love with one of the nurses. He goes back to the war. She falls pregnant and dies giving birth.
I couldn’t see how the whole came together to comment on the nature of love in wartime. This is what I’m guessing the novel is about.
Let this not be seen as a negative review of Hemingway’s novel. I would still be interested to read some of his other novels, perhaps his later work. I just can’t see what he’s trying to get at.
My theory is that the problem lies with his friendship with Gertrude Stein, that high priestess of modern writing who tried to create a kind of ‘cubist’ style in literature.
Hemingway may have styled himself as a straight shooting, no frills, ‘authentic’ male writer, yet his mentor was the exotic, fruity Gertrude Stein, with her fashionable Parisian set.
His clean, pure writing style may be just that, all style and no substance.