Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1957
Review number: 631
Novels about the First World War tend to concentrate on the Western Front. I have read a few about the Eastern (notably Solzhenitsyn's August 1914), but A Farewell to Arms remains unique to my knowledge. It is the first person narrative of an American volunteer in the Italian army, fighting in the mountains between Italy and Austria in some of the most obscure campaigns of the war.
In the past, I have never read anything by Hemingway, being rather put off by his macho reputation. One thing I had frequently heard about him, though, is that is prose is of remarkable quality. This is something which strikes the reader (when they pause for thought - it is too good to intrusively insist on its quality) all the way through A Farewell to Arms. While sticking to quite a limited vocabulary, it has a poetic quality: every word has a purpose. Descriptions are particularly terse. It is a style which owes more to top class journalism than to earlier fiction and is still striking today after seventy years of imitation.
The plot of A Farewell to Arms does not fit in with the macho image that Hemingway deliberately cultivated. Rather than being a tale of heroism at the front, most of the reminiscences of the narrator are set in hospitals behind the lines, in a desperate retreat when the Germans break through, or in flight as a deserter to Switzerland. The reader comes to care for Hemingway's central character, who is a very ordinary person, much more pushed around by events than shaping them.
Of course, by volunteering at a time when the USA was neutral to serve in another country's army, the narrator is a would-be hero. But the war in which he fights is far from heroic, and he himself fails (and is ironically decorated for bravery when wounded). He falls in love in hospital, but even this interferes with the performance of his duty as a soldier and in the end brings him nothing but misery, instead of proving the inspiration that the reader might expect.