MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 1

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

Ernest Hemingway, 1929

Franklin Library, 1929.  Bound in quarter leather, ridged spine, with embossed title and filigree; cloth boards patterned.  Illustrated by Bernard Fuchs.

During the Second World War, British trains carried a message (one that Wittgenstein cited): ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  Try as I might, I find it hard to put this question behind me when reading Hemingway.  He could certainly write; he was a natural; but did he have anything to say that was worth listening to?

A Farewell to Arms is set on the Italian Front during World War I.  An American volunteer ambulance officer falls in love with a British nurse.  In the meantime, we are exposed to the horror and futility of war.  But what does it matter if two outsiders have their ups and downs during war?  The novel draws on many experiences of Hemingway in the war, but we are spared that obsession with manliness that cost so many women so dearly in the course of Hemingway’s life.

The beginning of the novel is often quoted to show the spare style of the author.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

For some, this will be like a mix of Debussy and Auden.

There are passages about the war.

I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on the proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it……Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one.

Well, whatever else a patriot might be, you are not born one.  You have to accept moulding and pledge active loyalty and devotion.  The narrator has learned the horrors of war from being involved in one, even if not as a fighting man, and a citizen, and therefore potential patriot, of any of the nations involved.

But less than twenty pages later, we get this from an American volunteer dealing with Italian soldiers – quite possibly conscripts.  They appear to be deserting. The American tenente orders them to come back.  They said he had no authority because he was not their officer.

‘Halt,’ I said.  They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on the other side.  ‘I order you to halt,’ I called.  They went a little faster.  I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired.  I missed and they both started to run.  I shot three times and dropped one.  The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.  I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field.  The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip.  I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant.  He was far across the field, running, his head held low.  I commenced to reload an empty clip.  Bonello came up.

‘Let me finish him,’ he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road.  Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.  The pistol did not fire.

‘You have to cock it’, I said.  He cocked it and fired twice.  He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge.  He came back and handed me the pistol.

‘The son of a bitch,’ he said.

There you have that stern spare style.  ‘I shot three times and dropped one.’  Just as if he were shooting wooden ducks on a conveyor belt at the town fair.

But what has happened here?  An American is there in Italy as a volunteer ambulance man.  He is there to save people, not to kill them.  But he is concerned that soldiers – ‘real soldiers’ – are deserting ‘his’ side.  They are in truth showing a feeling to war that the narrator has just embraced.  He assumes the authority, which is challenged on obvious grounds, to order them to stop, and then he fires at them.

Whatever you might think of this, how do you describe ‘finishing’ the wounded man – who was born to some mother and who may leave a wife and children – as anything other than vicious murder?  Where does that leave the hero and narrator – or the author, who goes on as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary?  Was Himmler or Heydrich so clinical in describing the murders that he participated in?  How many novelists do you know who would be content to leave all this up in the air?

The child of the union is stillborn.

It seems she [Catherine, the nurse and mother] had one haemorrhage after another.  They couldn’t stop it.  I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.  She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.

……

‘It was the only thing to do,’ he [the doctor] said.  ‘The operation proved – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about it’, I said.

‘I would like to take you to your hotel.’

‘No thank you.’

He went down the hall.  I went to the door of the room.

‘You can’t come in now’, one of the nurses said.

‘Yes I can I said’, I said.

‘You can’t come in yet.’

‘You get out’, I said.  ‘The other one too.’

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good.  It was like saying good-by to a statue.  After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

‘Like saying good-by to a statue’?  Is that all he has to show for the loss of his lover and mother of his child?

Sparseness in writing is one thing; being antiseptic is another; but heartlessness is altogether something different.  It is not then surprising if some readers – including me – are left cold, and fearing that they have just seen a victory of technique over humanity.

Why then is this book here?  This is a lovely and readable edition (even if the illustrations are awful); I have greatly enjoyed parts of this and other books by this author; and the acknowledged contribution of Hemingway to the literature of the twentieth century is such that it would have been churlish to have omitted him from a book such as this.

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