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Archive for the ‘8 Decades Challenge’ Category

A Farewell To Arms

A Farewell to Arms is an unusual book. The storyline is simple enough, but the style of writing took some time getting used to. This is the first Hemingway novel I had ever read so I wasn’t prepared for it, but after reading the introduction in the edition which I own, the word ‘detachment’ stood out to me. The story began and I felt like I was outside looking in. Despite being written in the first person, you never feel like you have got into the mind of the protagonist. There is a wall there between his feelings and you as a reader which never really comes down even as the story turns into tragedy.

Because of this, I found it one of the strangest love stories I had ever read. The love between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley plays out in an almost childlike way. This impression was heightened by the continual repetition in the dialogue, or the descent of the dialogue into a long rambling paragraph of ‘he said’, ‘I said’ not unlike a child’s journal. It was when I switched from seeing the book as a detached narrative and began seeing it as a story from the heart of a child, that it really began to move me.

Despite their trials, the relationship between Catherine and Frederic is steeped with innocence. The war goes on, but neither character is ever truly a part of it. What they are part of is a strange world filled with the mystery of an overwhelming love for one another, and the war does little more than get in the way of that. Despite danger and risk, both characters continue to talk about the ‘fine time’ they are having or the ‘grand adventure’ that it all is. Nothing sullied can touch them – neither cruelty, injustice, war or death. Because of this, Hemingway’s conclusion is all the more tragic because

[The world] kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry

I enjoyed viewing World War I from a different angle again – this time the battle in Italy against the Austrians which tends not to be the focus of most WWI novels. Henry’s experience during the retreat is poignant – you so want him to escape and return to Catherine. But Hemingway’s intention is not to build anticipation or fear that he won’t. This part of the story simply serves to place a surmountable barrier in the way of Catherine’s and Frederic’s love which makes their reunion all the more wonderful.

There was little true character development of any but the main characters, and even those two were not developed deeply. I get the sense though that characterisation was not his priority. Because this story is semi autobiographical, I get the sense that Hemingway simply needed to ‘get it out’ and in doing so, contemplate his experience, his loss and mortality. In such an exercise, the characters were incidental.

Rating: 8/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Vintage (promotional copy from Paperview UK Ltd)
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 20 March 2008
Pages: 252
Challenges: 4 of category 7: Books with World War I as the theme for the 888 Challenge

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All Quiet on the Western Front

I would hail this book as one of the most evocative accounts of the First World War ever written. I was almost speechless when I finished it. There were passages which I found myself reading a second and third time because of their beauty. The story itself is similar to so many others – a young man grows into an old man as he experiences the war. His comrades become his only family and by the end, all hope for a future is lost along with the tens of thousands of lives. The difference with All Quiet on the Western Front is that the young man is from the ‘other side’. He is a ‘Hun’, a German, and yet his experience and suffering is identical. Upon reading this book so close behind A Long Long Way, the futility of the whole event becomes brilliantly clear.

It is little wonder this book was banned by the Nazis in the 1930’s. It does not glorify the war. It does not make the Germans out to be a master race or an invincible war machine. Rather, it shows them up as terrified boys who want nothing more but for the whole thing to end, but who cannot see an end and ultimately do little more than wish for their own. The reflections of the narrator are often bitter. The emphasis is on their living for the moment, enjoying what little they can scrounge, because they know that their mortality is finite and it is usually a matter of luck that they wake to see the sun rise.

One of the most incredible scenes was during the first battle early on in the book where the troops are subjected to the anguished sound of injured horses screaming. The scene consolidated the fact that no matter which side you were on, ultimately everyone suffered.

“You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.”

Every participant is like one of those horses – “…what have they done to deserve that…it is the most despicable thing of all to drag animals into a war” – they are all helpless, all dragged in, all frightened to die.

Once again, this book follows a trajectory downwards. It starts with some hope. There is levity among the group at the beginning. But as the war drags on…

“Our hands are earth, our body mud, and our eyes puddles of rain. We no longer know if we are alive or not.”

They are no longer boys with hopes, dreams, futures or lives. They become the earth which is where they all ultimately fall.

This is an incredible book which should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever seen war as a positive thing.

Rating: 10/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Date: 1994
Date Finished: 13 March 2008
Pages: 197
Challenges: 3 from category7: Books with World War I as the theme from the 888 Challenge; 1920’s in the 8 Decade challenge.

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