Teaching is good for you. I was asked to give a talk about Hemingway and the War to a group of A-Level students, which got me reading A Farewell to Arms again after quite a while. I had forgotten how very good parts of it are. For example, the description of the moment when Henry is wounded:
I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside behind my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were warm and wet inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid.
This really does make it new (especially when you look at the book beside its contemporaries). So pages are brilliant, but I’m not convinced about the novel as a whole; the main relationship I find rather dull. and it’s a moot point how much bravura writing a novel can stand. This book doesn’t quite suffer from Martin Amis disease (each page a gem, and the whole thing unreadable) but I think it suffers from diminishing returns, as similar effects are carried off in sequence. The short stories work better.
The book reminds me too of my general uncertainty about modernism and the War. If the big project of modernism is to make it new, to defamiliarise the unfamiliar, then the War does a better job of that than most modernist artists can manage, transforming landscapes, buildings and bodies beyond recognition. It’s interesting to follow the career of an artist like Nevinson who began the War as a modernist, with a painting like Soldiers Returning to the Front:
But as time went on, he needed a different style to convey what he needed to say. Did he feel that the machine-loving, dehumanised style of Vorticism encouraged a complicity with the anti-human war? I don’t know, but his later war paintings are in a more naturalistic style,one that is capable of bearing witness – Paths of Glory, for instance:
I think Picasso had the same problem. The great cubist paintings are of something apparently simple – an arrangement of guitar and a bottle, say – making the spectator look at a familiar object differently. When he wants to make a big political statement he produces Guernica, a mighty impressive painting, and one that says much about the strength of his feelings, but not one that tells us anything about the city, or the air-raid.
Another possible objection to A Farewell to Arms is that its brilliant portrayal of the experience of battle works against the war-sceptical tenor of the book’s opinions. James Campbell coined the concept of “combat gnosticism” to describe the notion common in criticism that the job of war literature is to convey the experience of combat, a job that can only be done well by writers who have had that experience. What makes him sceptical is the implicit claim that the writers (especially trench poets) can only be judged by standards that they themselves have chosen – and which are finally extra-literary standards. Hemingway was definitely a “combat gnostic”. There’s that brilliant passage in A Farewell to Arms about the untrustworthiness of big words like sacred, glorious and sacrifice, until finally “only the names of places had dignity.” So truth can only be spoken in the secret language of the war-experienced. Which reader of Hemingway has not at least for a moment wished to join that select company? He’s done an awful lot to glamorise war over the past century.