Don’t read this if you’re looking for a happy ending. OK, it was fairly obvious that it was all going to end in tears, because with this sort of book it always does, but … well, it wasn’t the sort of ending in tears that I was expecting. Oh dear.
Anyway. This is the story of a First World War romance between Frederic Henry, an American serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, who meet in Northern Italy in 1917. Hemingway himself was wounded in Northern Italy in 1918, and took a shine to an American nurse at a Red Cross hospital there, which is how the story originated. It’s a theatre of the war which doesn’t really loom very large in the consciousness of the English-speaking world, and the on-off guerrilla warfare described in the book is quite a contrast to the trench warfare which is what we usually think of in connection with the Great War. The politics of the war aren’t really mentioned very much, and the book ends before the significant victory won by Italy (with more than a little help from her friends) in the autumn of 1918, which was really the final nail in the coffin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which meant that Italy was treated as one of the major victorious powers at the peace conferences and made significant territorial gains at the new rump German-Austrian state’s expense.
OK, I have now got totally off the point and I am going to stop myself before I launch into a long essay on the South Tyrol question. South Tyrol should be part of Austria. Instead, it’s part of Italy. This annoys me rather a lot. However, it isn’t really very relevant to A Farewell to Arms. The main war action of this book is the Italians’ retreat after their overwhelming defeat at Caporetto: thoughts of victory and getting their hands on South Tyrol, the Trentino, Trieste and the Julian March very definitely don’t figure. Getting back to Frederic and Catherine, it’s not at all clear what either of them are doing there. Why are Catherine and her fellow British nurse Helen Ferguson stationed in Italy, rather than in Belgium or Northern France or anywhere else where British troops are involved? And Frederic apparently happened to be in Italy when war broke out, although we’re not told why – Grand Tour? Study? Work? – and just decided he’d join the Italian army, but there’s no convincing explanation of why he did so. It wasn’t some sort of idealistic thing like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and he doesn’t seem like someone who was looking for adventure. So that’s all a bit weird.
And they’re both so bizarrely calm and laid back about everything! I wasn’t expecting Mills and Boon and melodrama, but nor was I expecting everything to be quite so calm. We’re having a baby and we’re in a war zone and in a foreign country, and we’re not even married. OK, whatever, don’t stress. The Italian police are coming to arrest me for desertion, so we need to get out of here and get right up Lake Maggiore to Switzerland at dead of night, in a little rowing boat on our own. OK, fine, I’ll just go and pack. I understand that this is Hemingway’s style, and it’s quite captivating in its way, but it takes rather a lot of getting used to.
It’s also worth mentioning that this was banned in parts of the US when it was first published, in the 1920s, and banned in Italy until the 1940s. The Italians didn’t like the focus on their defeat and retreat. The Americans didn’t like the fact that Frederic deserted, and the general anti-war message of the book, the feeling of the futility of it all; but apparently the main issue was that it was considered “vulgar”. Hmm. All right, we’ve got an unmarried couple getting up to what only married couples were supposed to get up to, but it doesn’t really get any more steamy that her creeping out of his bedroom in the morning. Hardly Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The ban says a lot more about Boston in the 1920s than it does about the content of the book.
So, is this a good book? Well, yes, it actually is. It feels as if there ought to be so much more in it, but sometimes simplicity works best, and in this case it probably does. There’s a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “Two things greater than all things are. The first is Love, and the second War”. This isn’t a great, dramatic, sweeping novel of love and war, but, in its own way, it’s a well told story of both. Just rather depressing. In fact, very depressing. But it doesn’t pretend not to be.