When a book comes from the pen of a Nobel prize-winning author and it’s his first best-seller, my expectation is that I’ll be offered something special. But the only sensation brought on by reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was one of mystification about why this novel is rated so highly.
The story is a romance set in Italy during World War 1 between an American serving with the Italian forces and a British nurse. It’s based on Hemingway’s own experiences while serving as an ambulance driver on the Austrian-Italian front. The driver and the nurse meet, have a passionate affair, flee the country and spend months billing and cooing in a snowy idyll somewhere in Switzerland. Which doesn’t sound too bad a plot. The problem for me was that the story is related with all the passion of someone reading the back of a cornflakes box.
I understand that Hemingway was striving for an ultra lean writing style; one that avoided complicated syntax and eliminated what he considered unnecessary punctuation. Where many authors used the comma to connect phrases, Hemingway preferred to use ‘and’ as his connector. The result is so pared down it felt drained of all colour and vitality. Conversations between the two love birds were rendered in such a simple way that it was very hard to get inside their heads and to experience the intensity of the emotion they felt for each other. In short I found the whole thing under-whelming.