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A Farewell to Arms - By Ernest Hemingway (Random House)

Last update - Sunday, May 1, 2011, 13:37 By Metro Éireann

One of Hemingway’s middling novels, both chronologically and in terms of quality, A Farewell to Arms tells the story of First World War ambulance driver Frederick Henry and his relationship with British nurse Catherine Barkley – told, of course, in Hemingway’s signature flat, unadorned prose.

The worst thing about this book is its melodramatic and clichéd plot: boy (Henry) meets girl (Catherine) during tumultuous times (WWI), she gets pregnant and dies in childbirth, and to top it off the child is stillborn. Throughout – as is customary in Hemingway’s novels – everyone drinks a veritable river of alcohol. Admittedly it’s possible that this particular plot wasn’t so clichéd back when Hemingway first wrote it.
In contrast, the best thing about the book is the fact that Hemingway was never a writers’ writer – he was more just a dude who wrote books, and as such he had a unique take on life. He could also write characters who were both normal and weird at the same time.
In A Farewell to Arms, Henry isn’t quite your run-of-the-mill ambulance driver; he is an American somehow serving with the Italian forces despite having no further connection to Italy, and his attitude to the entire war is not so much negative or positive as basically blasé. Catherine, in some respects a typical Florence Nightingale type – caring, giving and slightly dependent – is also willing to endlessly shag Henry in his hospital bed while she’s supposed to be on duty and then continue an extramarital relationship with him when she becomes pregnant.
There is also the irony of the fact that while Henry is clearly in perpetual danger of getting his block blown off, first by the Germans/Austrians, and then by the Italians after going AWOL, it’s Catherine who eventually bites it through the much-less glamorous route of childbirth gone wrong. The message is clearly one of bleak futility, of the inability to control one’s own life, the knowledge of a loss that can never be recovered.
Even today, this book is a different kind of war novel, one that more than insinuates that life is a war in which concepts such as glory and ideology aren’t even on stage and where one can do little more than accept one’s fate. Interesting – but ultimately a bit of a downer.

Roslyn Fuller is the author of political thriller ISAK. More information about the Canadian, her work and the Irish Writers’ Exchange can be found at

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