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War is Boring: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My Rating★★★★☆


War is Boring

Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and apparent objectivity the things that happen around him and to him – practical and prosaic and always pragmatic about everything. People die and bombs explode in the same paragraph as the one where breakfast was considered with equal interest, and he takes it all in his stride.

As best as I can tell, the action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916 and before the end of the war. Place references and political references come and go without troubling the narrator too much – he is not to be bothered with such details. His context is not simply this war, but all wars and the notions of honor, heroism and patriotism – all of which he looks at with pristine incomprehension.

War always generates backlash, even from the Mahabharata and the Iliad to the many anti-war epics over the ages – the honor and glory that war is supposed to provide is questioned in its aftermath. The bloodlust and the fever-pitch cries of honor precedes war and then they calm down into searching questions about what those terms mean or into scathing parodies.

I am not entirely sure whether Farewell to Arms is a sober questioning of these virtues or a shambolic parody of them. It is never quite clear whether Hemingway is making fun of war or just expressing profound ennui. Especially when he combines Love with War, and both seem to get the same treatment, it becomes even harder to deduce whether Hemingway is ridiculing war and its virtues or life and its delusions in general and including love also into it. After all, the famous ending doesn’t leave us with much to pick up the pieces after.

The narrator tells the often ugly truth about war, without even trying to be anti-war in any way. By depicting daily life, he achieves it without an effort. It is the prosaicness of action, the utter lack of drama that becomes the most significant force in the narration – even his injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti.

All this combines to show up war as a hideous game, but one entirely not worth the bother. There are so many subtle ways in which he trivializes war, always retaining the impression that it is not a conscious effort, as if he was not even telling us anything about the war, letting it remain in the background as a boring humm.

“The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else’s college.”

We are not even allowed particularly intelligent characters to liven up the drudgery of our reading, the novel is full of the Ordinary, the exceptional striking in its absence – and the readers are left disoriented, repeatedly trying to remind themselves that they are in the midst of the greatest and most destructive war humanity had yet known.

In the end, war is exposed as not only meaningless but boring. Usually war writers exploit the Pathos of war, Hemingway walks right inside, shows us around and escorts us out after having shown us the utter blandness of the ‘heroic’ exercise.

Even the “Love Story” is constructed out of the boring bits and of repeated bland conversations that seem almost never-ending and droll. Here Hemingway is probably playing us again: instead of the usual technique of showing the pleasant bucolic scenery of distant daily-life and contrasting that against gory war scenes and thus asking the reader to thirst for the war to end, Hemingway places both the personal and the public sphere next to each other, exposes both and yet somehow derides war through this. I am not yet sure how he does that, but my feelings wherever I encountered this tells me that he does it well.

Hemingway’s notorious fault is the monotony of repetition, and he has always been considered a better short story writer than novelist – the short form plays into his prowess for portraying ironies in short staccato beats. In A Farewell to Arms, he brings both his strengths and weakness as a storyteller and makes them both work for him masterfully. He converts the act of boring the reader into an art form and into an exercise in supreme irony. Very effective. Almost as effective as comedy, if you ask me.

While it is hard to interpret A Farewell to Arms as hopeful, to me it was so, though in a subtle way. It leaves us the hope that if only more soldiers could be like the Tenente and just walk away from all the boredom, even though only boredom awaits in normal life, things could be better.

To me the most striking impression of all, in a work filled with unforgettable impressions, was the sheer acceptance exhibited by the narrator: The hustle of the war, his own life, and the entire world even seems to move past the stoic Tenente who is left a mere spectator, but who never seems to question the events that unfold.

This captures the spirit of the war and also of the times.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Old Man and the Sea: An Alternate History of Pequod

The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The wolves will come…

I started this in high spirits as my updates show: “Fifth re-read, this is surely a koan. How thrilling it is to plumb new depths in old wells of wisdom…”

But, as I read on towards the last few pages, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is Moby Dick set in an alternate universe.

In this alternate universe:

The Giant Leviathan is a noble, unseen fish – steady and without malice.

Captain Ahab is transformed into a gentle, wise old zen master. Santiago – a humble fisherman with no legendary crew to command and only his frail body instead of a Pequod to do his bidding.

Ishmael is a young boy, who instead of being a “end is nigh” Nostradamus is a loving, weeping young boy who cares deeply about the world.

Queequeg is probably the dolphin which was the old man’s only hope against his foe, his brother.

Now Moby Dick for me was the grand struggle of an obsessed genius with his destiny (in fact, about the creative struggle) – it proves that life is a tragedy and in the grand conclusion, you go down with a mighty confrontation and your ambitions take you down to the depths of the sea – no trace left of either you or your grand dreams except a mist of madness propagated as a half-heard story.

This was profound and it moved me to tears – but it was still grand, was it not? The great struggle, the titanic battle and the heroic capitulation! It was operatic and it was uplifting – even amidst the tragedy, the mighty bellow of man’s cry in the face of the unconquerable; that gave me goosebumps.

But Hemingway and his Old Man has turned the story in its head.

It takes you beyond the happily-ever-after of Moby Dick (!) and as always those unchartered waters are beyond description. This alternate universe is much more cruel and much more real. There is no grand confrontation that ends in an inspirational tragedy.

It turns it into a battle of attrition – you are inevitably defeated even in success and life will wear you down and leave no trace of your ambitions.

It makes you battle to the last breaking point of every nerve and sinew and lets you win a hollow victory that you cannot celebrate as life has worn you out too much in your pursuit of your goals and the destiny, the destiny too now seems more and more unreal and you ask yourself if you were even worthy enough to start the battle.

And as you turn back after that jaded victory, then comes the sharks, inevitably, inexorably. And then begins the real battle, not the grand epic, but a doomed, unenthusiastic battle against reality – with the knowledge that no grand ambition can ever succeed.

And the old man tells it for you – “I never should have gone out that far!”

The alternate universe is depressing and it is Zen at the same time, I do not know how. I probably have to read this many more times before any hope, any secret light in it comes to illuminate me – for today, for this reading, Hemingway has depressed me beyond belief and I cannot remember how I always thought of this as an inspirational fable!

The scene in which the restaurant lady sees the bones of the once great fish sums it up for me – In the end you give up hope of success and only wish that at the very least you might be able to bring back a ghost of the fish so that people can see how great your target really was – but all they see is the almost vanished skeleton of your idea; your grand dreams are just so much garbage now and who will have the imagination to see the grandeur it had at its conception?

“They beat me, Manolin,” he said. “They truly beat me.”

“He didn’t beat you. Not the fish.”

“No. Truly. It was afterwards.”

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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts

 

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