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Sunday, January 27, 2013

I lay flat on the bank and heard the river and the rain.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
A Farewell to Arms is a story of romance, war, tenderness, brutality, and everyday life.  Frederick Henry, a.k.a. Federico, or Tenente, is an American ambulance driver serving with the Italian army (I know, #confused) in WWI.  Henry meets Miss Catherine Barkley, a Scottish nurse, during his time in the war, and they quickly become enamored of one another. Henry is wounded by a mortar shell and gets transferred to Milan to have surgery and convalesce.  Miss Barkley follows him to Milan and serves as a hospital nurse, where they carry out a somewhat secret (and somewhat not) romance.  They begin to consider themselves "married", and just when he must return to the front, Henry discovers Catherine is pregnant. He returns to war in a very different stage; the Italians are being forced into retreat by the Austrians.  Henry tries to lead his ambulance men back safely along the retreat path, but the Italians become suspicious of everyone in the chaos and Henry is taken for a German soldier. He is about to be executed for infiltrating enemy lines, but he makes a narrow escape and stows away on a train.  He reunites with Catherine in Stresa, but after a brief spate of happiness, the couple is forced to escape to Switzerland so that Henry can evade arrest for "deserting".  They are blissfully happy in Switzerland for a few months, staying in adorable chalets, eating delicious food, and drinking quite a bit (the both of them - clearly the whole alcohol is a NO-NO during pregnancy hadn't quite happened yet).  Catherine goes into labor at a hospital and Henry does his best to help her through what turns out to be a horrific first labor. After a marathon birth, they discover their son is stillborn.  Catherine, exhausted and weakened from the birth, hemorrhages and soon passes away. Henry is left walking back alone to his hotel in the rain.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

It may seem like an odd story, but I really very much enjoyed this book. If you haven't read it, I highly suggest it, though I would say be prepared to give yourself time to fall into its rhythm.  I used a metaphor of riding a horse to describe the way I felt about reading The Sun Also Rises, and it would apply quite nicely to this one as well. Hemingway doesn't dive into his novels; rather, he draws you in with these sort of concentric circles of intrigue and tenderness.  I find myself surprisingly attached to his protagonists, but in a very different way than with most novels. There's a marvelous intentionality to Hemingway's writing.

Here are a few of my favorite bits (why don't you tell me the bit you liked, and I'll tell you if I liked making that bit?) in no particular order:

- An Italian, speaking to Tenente after he is wounded. It's true - they were eating lunch when they got hit.
"Good news! You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d'argento but perhaps they can only get the bronze."
  "What for?"
 "Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?"
  "No," I said. "I was blown up while we were eating cheese."

- Tenente speaking to the doctor. (Clearly not everyone gets his humor ;))
"Do you want to keep your knee, young man?"
"No," I said.
"I want it cut off," I said, so I can wear a hook on it." hagh.

-Catherine, to Henry. I suppose it's not an accident that when Henry is left alone at the end, he's walking off in the rain without her.
Catherine: "Listen to it rain."
"It's raining hard."
"And you'll always love me, won't you?"
"And the rain won't make any difference?"
"That's good. Because I'm afraid of the rain."
I don't know, darling. I've always been afraid of the rain."

This was so tender - it reminded me very much of a Fitzgerald scene where the rain stops and Gatsby tells Nick with such delight that it's stopped raining and it's a marvelous metaphor for his relationship rekindling with Daisy.

- Jaundice incident
Tenente gets in trouble with the nurses at the convalescent hospital for giving himself jaundice, because, as it turns out, he has been getting everyone who visits to sneak in alcohol for him.  The head nurse catches one of Tenente's friends sneaking out bottles from his closet. She is Horrified (which is particularly hilarious considering that he's already gotten rid of half of his stash when she finds it) and they get into an incredibly amusing argument and Tenente proudly points out one alcohol bottle shaped like a bear.

- Henry, to Catherine, upon realizing in the middle of the night that they must away to Switzerland to escape arrest:

"What is it, darling?"
"It's all right, Cat. Would you like to get dressed right away and go in a boat to Switzerland?"
"Would you?"
"No. I'd like to go back to bed."
"What is it about?"
"The barman says they are going to arrest me in the morning."
"Is the barman crazy?"
"Then please hurry, darling, and get dressed so we can start."

- The barman, who lends Catherine and Henry his rudimentary boat with which to escape:

"I don't think you'll get drowned."
"That's good."
"Go with the wind up the lake."
"All right."
"Did you leave the money for the hotel?"
"Yes. In an envelope in the room."
"All right. Good luck, Tenente."
"Good luck. We thank you many times."
"You won't thank me if you get drowned."
"What does he say?" Catherine asked.
"He says good luck."

Passages I particularly liked:
- "I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind." on getting hit with the mortar shell

- "Oh, baby, how you've come back to me. You come back serious and with a liver. I tell you this war is a bad thing." Henry's hilarious roommate and friend Rinaldi, on Henry's return from the hospital

- "I don't want to be your friend, baby. I am your friend." Rinaldi again. ;)

- "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." on the inadequacy of words to describe war

- "The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it."

- "Never mind, darling. We'll have breakfast first. You won't mind being arrested after breakfast." Catherine, after they arrive in Switzerland by rowing a rickety boat in the night to evade customs.

- "I sat back in the corner with a heavy mug of dark beer and an opened glazed-paper package of pretzels and ate the pretzels for the salty flavor and the good way they made the beer taste and read about disaster."

- "Oh darling, I want you so much I want to be you too."
    "You are. We're the same one."
    "I know it. At night we are."
    "The nights are grand."
    "I want us to be all mixed up." Catherine and Henry, on having to part

This last bit was my favorite moment in the book. Henry's describing their routine in the chalet in Switzerland:

"There was a box of wood in the hall outside the living-room and I kept up the fire from it. But we did not stay up very late. We went to bed in the dark in the big bedroom and when I was undressed I opened the windows and saw the night and the cold stars and the pine trees below the window and then got into bed as fast as I could.  It was lovely in bed with the air so cold and clear and the night outside the window."

Like I said, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Onwards and upwards, to The Death of the Radius. No, that's not it - The Demise of Diameter. DEFinitely got it that time. ;)

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