When I finished Ernest Hemingway's semi-autobiographical A Farewell to Arms my immediate thought was to advise everyone I knew not to read it unless they had always particularly wanted to read a mediocre tale about the futility of life and love set during the Battles of the Isonzo during World War I. I for one always had wanted to and yet I was still disappointed. But I then realized that this book rewarded my patience if I only thought about it a little, and so before describing it I feel obliged to say that if you do want to read it, you might want to avoid the spoilers which follow, although the plot is so simple it can be summarized in the next paragraph.
The book concerns Frederick Henry, an American ambulance driver who works with the Italian army as it battles Austria in the First World War. Early on he meets Catherine Barkley, a beautiful English nurse who he initially plans to seduce and be done with but subsequently falls in love with. The book is written with Henry as the narrator, although he is recalling past events, and follows him as he carries out his military duties, is wounded and convalesces, then returns to duty only to have to retreat and flee to Switzerland with Catherine as military police hound him for allegedly abandoning his men. Catherine, who fell pregnant in Italy, eventually gives birth to a stillborn child and then dies herself. The novel then ends.
The novel may be viewed as a tragedy but it is written in a deliberately banal style which belies the usual form of the genre. It is a matter-of-fact reporting of events, with the deepest feelings mentioned as transiently as the consumption of a glass of wine. This gives the impression that such events are only as important as the least and means that moments of pathos are vastly outnumbered by moments of banality, as Hemingway consciously refuses to focus on what would usually be the emotional bread-and-butter of such a tale and reports all events equally. This journalistic tone, which is more remarkable for what it leaves out than what it leaves in, is what gives the book its peculiar mixture of pathos and dullness.
This, we may assume, is an artefact of the story's telling from the point of view of Frederick, who after all is a man's man who suffered much and never showed any interest in reading the sort of effeminate tragedies to which I now compare his journey; Hemingway portrays his emotional numbness - no doubt caused by what he suffered - admirably, even though it does not make for a particularly fascinating read. The only clues to the character's inner turmoil caused by war and love is in dialogue, specifically between Catherine and Frederick. We see here that both are capable of the deepest emotion and in fact spend nearly the entire book locked in what appears to be first love, although we know for Catherine that it is not because she has loved before.
I probably do not need to remind everyone that the peculiar quality of first love lies in the fact the participants usually have not yet had the experience of love ending or love ended, unless they have suffered a family tragedy; and it is this ensuing naivete that animates the characters here. They cannot bear to be apart for even a matter of hours and completely eschew the company of others. When Catherine falls pregnant, both - especially Frederick - view the baby as an imposition, a representative of the forces beyond their control that have plagued them both throughout their lives. They want to shut themselves off from the outside world and its meddling and live purely by the warmth their love provides, but they cannot.
This may hardly be an original basis for a story, as Hemingway acknowledges when he calls this his Romeo and Juliet. But whereas that play consists in an emotionally-charged and poetic rendering of events, this is an absurdly matter-of-fact portrayal of a tragedy of equal measure; and its message consists in Frederick's not having been destroyed by all that he endured, in war and love and love ending, and still being able to report it in such a fashion.
Frederick is someone who has accepted the inevitability of death and loss, and the fact that those who have the most to lose in love and life are hence the ones constantly at most risk of loss, but who does not let it rob him of his capacity to enjoy what is there in the moment. He does not love fate but he can live with it. This is a modern Romeo and Juliet for the balanced and rational man who is rational enough to recognize the importance of the irrational within him, something scarcely any of our so-called great thinkers are capable of doing anymore, and then to also note precisely what he had for lunch and how many glasses of grappa accompanied it.
The arms Frederick says farewell to by the end of this book are not only or even primarily those he took up in war - after all, he was an ambulance driver, not a combat soldier, and he was an American in an Italian war - but those of his lover. He loved her so completely and without concern for anything else in the world and then she was taken from him, and this book is the story of how one man coped with that farewell. By relating the story as he does he shows that he did so with dignity, he did so with stoicism, and he hence did so in a way that few would be capable of in reality; and this is what makes Hemingway's novel ultimately a work of art and not of mediocre journalism.