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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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How to Read and Why

How to Read and WhyHow to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

My Rating★★★★★

This book has come by some harsh criticism, especially by eminent reviewers like Terry Eagleton and fellow goodreaders. In spite of the bad reviews by goodreaders I usually take at their word, I decided to give the book a chance. With Bloom’s combination of ideas such as Shakespeare being the progenitor of all modern fiction and poetry, and of the bard also being the inventor of ‘Human” in literature and his audacious theory on all literary works being nothing more than a sort of plagiarism or a creative misreading of earlier efforts, I was sure that at the very least I would get some interesting things to read about the thirty odd literary masterpieces (and forty odd authors) that he endeavors to discuss in the book.

One of the major criticism leveled at the book by most of the reviewers I found on goodreads was about how most of his discussions on various books, especially of short stories and poems, were just recapitulations of the plots and the verses and then some banal commentary on how good they were or how moving they were. This is well captured by Terry Eagleton when he says that Bloom has no fallen into the “quote-and-dote” school of criticism. In one of his most stinging passages he remarks:

“Why does Bloom need to augment the self? ‘We read,’ he suggests, ‘not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.’ It sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it. Perhaps he alienates them by his repeated chanting of excessively long poems.”

Turns out that the fundamental problem with the book is that it is not an essay on how to read or on why to read but it is a book about books, a book by a passionate reader about the books he loves the most – the best sort there is. It does not teach you how to read books but it is an exercise on how to talk about books you have read, how to love them, how to re-read them and how to reminisce about those old companions in the most intelligent and enamored fashion. That is what bloom demonstrates.

This book is an exercise in love – a reader talking about what he loves to read and why, converted forcefully into a book on how and why another should read – and this I feel was the reason the book got all its bad reviews. It built up the wrong expectations. Readers came to it hoping for good advice on how to read meaningfully but was treated to a long monologue on how bloom reads and why he loves it. With a better title and an explanatory subtitle, the same readers might have loved the same book that they criticized so much. Luckily for me, I did not go into it hoping for someone to teach me how to read or wondering why I should read, I am getting by well enough on those fronts; I went in hoping to discuss some of these great books and I got exactly that – a nice conversation with someone who loves books, the very best of pleasures that a reading life offers.

Ultimately, my biggest complaint is about how short the book is, how perfunctory it is – glossing over Blake and Chekov and others in the space of a few pages and treating only the smallest possible sample of their works (one). I have a strong feeling that the title of the book was fixed around midway through its writing, because from then on, probably following his editor’s orders, Bloom takes to ending each chapter with the questions of the book title, the “how” an the “why” of reading, and mostly the answers he provides are platitudes that only serve to irritate the serious reader who wants only to talk on about his favorite books and not wait for the author to come back to the discussion after giving a small meaningless speech to the public like an advertisement that intrudes on it. It feels like a sell-out and cheapens the experience.

I did not mind the many shortcomings of the book, it reminded me of old friends and gave me a few good insights from the texts quoted and many more from my own memories of reading and most valuably, it made me think of why I read them, what I experienced then and how I was changed by each of the readings. That was the great pleasure Bloom gave to me while I put up with his “teenage groupie” sticky sentimentality about Shakespeare and repeated admonitions to read poems aloud or to read to ‘expand one’s consciousness’. The “how” to read part of the book is stifling and pedantic and the “why” part of the title does not get much attention but Stuart Jeffries captures it brilliantly when he says: “Ultimately the intellectual and the sensual are married in Bloom’s notion of reading as a difficult pleasure. He calls this “the reader’s Sublime”. It is the closest to secular transcendence that we may achieve in this life – it helps us get beyond despair, loss and death. The cultivation of that difficult pleasure, finally, is why we should read.

You don’t have to agree with Bloom’s views to enjoy the book because the book is just a shared exercise in enjoying other books – you just need to have a love for the same books that Bloom discusses and the patience to put up with some commercial asides and the rest will take care of itself.

If you have read and enjoyed most of the books discussed, pick up the book and read it to reminisce with a fellow reader and you are bound to enjoy most parts of it. Bloom’s love of great literature being so contagious, it might even send you anew to Proust, to Ibsen, to Borges, to Italo Calvino, to Pynchon, to Emily Dickenson and most importantly to Shakespeare. But, if you have read very few of the works discussed and pick up the book to find a reason why you should read them, you will probably hate this book and also stay away from the wonderful classics discussed, and there could be no greater tragedy. With that caveat, take my five-star rating and my complete recommendation for reading this book.

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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Read literature like a Pro: A Cheat-Sheet

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the LinesHow to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Foster comes across for the most part of the book as Captain Obvious, or rather Prof. Obvious and maybe even as Dr. Condescending, M.A., Ph.D., etc.

But no matter how frustrated with the book I was at times, Foster does have a language that reminded me constantly of all my english professors and since I have always loved my literature classes and the teachers, it was easier to swallow.

The book treats only very obvious and surface level things like ‘if he almost drown then he is symbolically reborn’ etc. He takes us through a variety of such things ‘hidden’ in literature that we should be on the lookout for to truly enjoy any reading. The only problem is that he never goes deep enough to let help a reader think analytically of what can be considered challenging literature.

But sometime obvious things are worth restating too and sometimes they help us develop a pattern of thinking that will eventually evolve by itself into what is really required. And that in the end might be the real goal of the book. In that case Foster can consider it a reasonable success.

So here is a quick list of easy things to watch out for when you read literature:

1) Every time a character in the book takes any journey/trip of any sort, start looking for tropes like gatekeepers, dragons, treasures etc. Chances are high that it is a mythic Quest of some sort.

2) If you come across a scene involving the characters eating together, especially if a whole chapter is dedicated to it, chances are that it is being used to explore their relations and it is an act of Communion with all that the word implies.

3) Vampires exist, even when they don’t. If it is not Twilight, chances are that it has literary significance. And if it does, the vampire figure is probably being used to hide a lot of sexual and societal undertones about chastity and selfishness. And even when a book has nothing to do with vampires, it would serve you well to identify vampires who suck others blood to survive.

4) Sonnet is the most used type of poetry? _ Frankly i am not sure why this chapter came in and how it helps the readers in anyway except to recognize when they meet a sonnet – they look square.

5) You will meet historical figures like Napoleon, Caesar and Gandhi in many guises even when the situation does not seem to indicate it. If you do recognize this hidden historical aspect of the character, then the story will acquire a new dimension

6) References and quotations from Shakespeare and Bible, including situations and entire plots abound in literature. (Duh)

7) Fairy tales form an important part of literature too and you might want to have a look-out for Hansel and Gretel‘s witch anytime people get lost in unfamiliar territory.

8) Greek symbolism and myths crop up everywhere and be ready for your author being a Homer in disguise trying to tell a modern version. And most of western literature taps this well-spring

9) Weather is always symbolic and Rain, spring etc has deep rooted meaning which authors exploit consistently. If it is raining and thin look gloomy, that might be irony or they might have hear dof London (Foster doesn’t seem to have).

10) When violence is used in a text, it is probably a plot device. So start thinking about why did he have to hit him with a baseball bat and not with a table lamp and why the character had to climb that mountain to die.

11) Almost everything that is repeated can be symbolic, even events and actions. There is no way to list them out so get in the habit of being paranoid.

12) Politics of the day inevitably seeps into any work and knowing that helps in understanding any prejudices which might not be acceptable today and also in understanding the real motivations. Who can read and understand Hemingway without knowing of his history?

13) Christ figures are everywhere and anytime anyone is even slightly noble be on the lookout for christ archetypes like disciples and sacrifice and betrayal.

14) If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.

15) Lot of things can stand for sex and it is important to understand the meaning of tall buildings. If they write about sex when they mean strictly sex, we have another word for that – pornography.

16) If anyone gets wet in a book, they might change their life after that. They might be baptized into another life in short

17) Geography is probably the most important part of any novel. Geography and Season – think about why the author used that setting and the motifs of the novel will become clearer.

18) There is only One Story – whatever that means.

19) If any character has a scar (lightening?), it usually is a means to set him/her apart and the nature of the scar is symbolic. It could be scar/defect or ever a mild skin coloration – but it is a device to set up for greater things.

20) If a character is blind, ask what he is blind to or what others are blind to. It certainly is not just about physical sight.

21) Whenever any sort of illness comes in, it is usually a metaphor – especially if it is heart disease, TB (consumption), AIDS, Cancer or mysterious in some way. In literature disease is never caused by microscopic mundane things – it is caused by society and character.

22) Read any work from the time frame in which it was written.

23) Irony trumps everything else. If the author defeats your expectation with any symbol, he is so ironing you. This can work at many levels of course, he might defeat your expectation of being subject to irony by suing the actual meaning and so on.

So. Long list? Not if you read a lot. You can see all this in three days of light reading. In fact I am tending to be lenient in this review mostly due to that wonderful last chapter where he gives an example short story and analyses it. That one chapter makes the whole book worth reading. The reading list at the end is also useful and I have reproduced it here.

But getting back to the means of analyses listed above.

Were they too obvious? Or are you not confident that you will start spotting them from tomorrow? Either way, it might help us get into the habit as I said earlier and that is what really matters.

The only way to catch on to all these devices and symbols is to be familiar with them. And the only way to do that? Read of course. Read a hell lot.

So you can see that you need to have read a lot. I mean a lot. And be very conversant with all the tropes and history of literature and myth to fully enjoy or critique serious works – that is, you need to have had a life dedicated to reading to enjoy reading.

In other words, to read literature like a professor you need to be a professor of literature. Bingo. Insight

PS. Of course the iterative growth in the pleasure of reading is known to every bookworm – we are addicted to books as it keeps getting better with every new book we read – the connections, the intertextuality and the by-lanes all become clearer and more and more FUN.

PPS. Susan Sontag makes another arbitrary appearance, haunting my reading list.

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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