My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.
If Voltaire had read Hemingway’s famous war novel, I’d wager that he would pronounce that it is neither about war nor a novel. Compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, the descriptions of war in this book are ludicrously tame. The vast majority of the time the narrator is not even at the front; and when he is, he is far behind the front lines, driving an ambulance. The bulk of the book is taken up, instead, by a love story. The war forms the backdrop—though admittedly a very conspicuous backdrop—and is not the main thread of the book.
What of the novel? Hemingway is a writer of conspicuous strengths and weaknesses; and the longer the book, the more apparent his shortcomings. Though the novel is slim, it still feels padded. Hemingway, for whatever reason, considered it dramatically necessary to narrate every time his characters ate or drank. Aside from telling us that his characters drank a lot (even while pregnant) and appreciated good wines, we learn very little from these frequent repasts, and the ultimate effect is to make the reader hungry.
The conversations, too, are repetitive—especially between the narrator and Catherine Barkley, his wartime sweetheart. While strikingly tender and frank, especially for Hemingway, the relationship between these two never sparkles with the interplay of personality. There is none of the mutual discovery we find in, say, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Instead, the two of them talk to each other the way people talk to their dogs—asking cutesie rhetorical questions never meant to be answered.
These two examples are just part of a larger fault: Hemingway’s tendency to get carried away into nostalgic, atmospheric descriptions. At his best moments, admittedly, he creates that wistful, bittersweet, melancholic tone that he is known for, and that forms such a beautiful part of his work. But too often the book becomes pointlessly autobiographical. Hemingway is, after all, one of the strongest proponents of the “write what you know” school of fiction. Though wise advice, there is a danger to this method: Since everyone’s life is interesting to themselves, it can be difficult to know which parts may be interesting to other people. This book definitely suffers in this way.
Of course there are many strong bits. Some scenes are unforgettable—the narrator’s injury, the long retreat, rowing across the Swiss Lake, among others. I also really loved the conversations between the narrator and Rinanldi. Unlike the love story, that friendship has true chemistry. Indeed many episodes, taken by themselves, are remarkable. But do they add up to a coherent book?
I ask this specifically in regards to the ending. Since I had just read A.C. Bradley’s book on tragedy, in which he insisted that tragedy requires that a hero create his own downfall, I was struck by how un-tragic was the end of this book. The fatal stroke is not the inevitable result of any personal flaw or a misguided decision, but pure misfortune. The final effect, therefore, is not tragic, but pathetic. In Hemingway’s novel, the universe itself is malevolent, even sadistic, and humans just confused defenseless creatures caught in its maw.
Thus I am a bit perplexed that some people see this as an anti-war novel. The narrator’s crushing blow is not caused by the war; indeed it is something that could have happened to anyone. You can argue that the novel’s bleak atmosphere reflects the fatalism and the pessimism engendered by the war: a nihilistic perspective that is carried over into every phase of life—even love. Yet the narrator himself is not pessimistic—at least not most of the time; if he were, he would not have embarked on his love-affair. It is neither his perspective nor the war, therefore, that dooms the narrator, but some mysterious malevolency of the world itself that makes lasting happiness impossible, in war or in peace.
Thus, aside from a few explicitly anti-war passages in the book, the general tenor has little to do with pacifism or any other political reflection. Instead, to paraphrase the book’s most famous passage, the final message is: Everyone gets broken in the end no matter what. And I don’t think this notion has any truth or value.