Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dumb as a Bag of Rocks

Well, friends. I did it. I finished the first novel for my newest blog series, "Leah's Literary Adventures!" I was really dragging my feet on this book. The last time I read a book I hated so much was in high school.

I mentioned before that said novel may or may not have been Ernest Hemingway. The book of choice?

Yep. A Farewell to Arms. You may be asking why I would even choose an Ernest Hemingway novel in the first place. Well the answer is that I was supposed to have read it in high school, but I didn't. Or maybe I'm thinking of The Sun Also Rises. Whatever. Anyway, I'd never read Hemingway, and I was curious what the big deal about him was.

And I'm still wondering what the big deal was. Wait, was that bad form? Should I withhold my judgement until the end?

Sorry. It's my night off, and I've had *mumble mumble* beers, so naturally blogging seemed like a good choice.

Do I have to say "spoiler alert"? If this is a book you haven't read and actually care about, stop reading now.

To sum up, A Farewell to Arms is about Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who is an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army during WWI. During the course of the war, he falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley.

But now, down to business. I'll try not to make it sound like a paper.

The biggest problem with this book?

The main character is not a likeable guy. It's a big risk to write your main character who's a bit of an ass. I've read books where the main character isn't likable, but you want to keep reading because he's going through some sort of inner struggle, and the redemption at the end will make it all worth it. This isn't that sort of novel.

The event that solidifies Lt. Henry's place as ass? At the very beginning of the book, (That is, after the first two BORING chapters in which LITERALLY NOTHING happens.) Henry steals his friend's girl.

Rinaldi, a member of Henry's company, confesses "I am now in love with Miss Barkley. . . I will probably marry Miss Barkley."

Now, this could be an impassioned Italian thing; Rinaldi is probably in love with a different girl every month. But the rule is always not to go for the person your friend is interested in. Henry and Rinaldi shared a room. They were definitely close enough not to steal each others' girlfriends.

So what happens after Rinaldi's confession of love? During the third meeting between Lt. Henry and Catherine, he kisses her. Then he vanishes for like, three weeks, and when he returns, he lies to her to get her to sleep with him.

Catherine asks him if he loves her, to which he lies and says yes. "I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley," Henry narrates, "nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.

Now, is this a main character you want to read about? Not me. But still, I kept going.

The next problem with this novel?

Lt. Henry's eventual confession of love is in no way genuine. Lt. Henry and Miss Barkley go through a brief courtship, if you could call it that, during which he is injured in the line of duty. He is then placed in the same hospital where she is a nurse.

The first time he sees her after being injured, he confesses his love for her. "When I saw her I was in love with her."

I'm sorry, am I actually supposed to believe that? You told her that before, when you were just playing games, what makes me think you're actually being honest now? Nothing has happened to make us think he's undergone a change of character, not where his relationship with Catherine is concerned.

Problem number 3:

Catherine Barkley is a stupid ninny. No joke, she's probably one of the dumbest characters I've ever read. About halfway through the book, after she and Lt. Henry have been conducting an affair while he's injured AND one of her patients, there's something obviously bothering her.

At first she refuses to tell him what it is. She says, "I'm afraid I'll make you unhappy or worry you."

Her problem she's so worried about?

She's pregnant.

Yep. She didn't want to tell her boyfriend she's pregnant. She had no intention of leaving him. What was she going to do, wait until the kid popped out to tell him? If she didn't want to worry him, maybe she shouldn't have done anything to get herself pregnant in the first place.

Oh. And?

Later in the book, somehow Lt. Henry and Catherine are talking about STD's. That Rinaldi's had syphilis, and Lt. Henry had gonorrhea.

Do you know what she says? "I wish I'd had it."

I'm sorry, WHAT?

A nurse just said she wish she'd had AN STD.

The very last problem with this nightmare of a novel is the writing. I'm sorry. I'll just say it.

Hemingway is a bad writer.

Besides the obvious flaws listed above, Hemingway has a real pension for run-on sentences. Now, I'll just state that I can handle a run-on sentence if the words are at least interesting.

For example:

"Later, below in the town, I watched the snow falling, looking out of the window of the bawdy house, the house for officers, where I sat with a friend and two glasses drinking a bottle of Asti, and, looking out at the snow falling slowly and heavily, we knew it was all over for that year."

Not only does this sentence go on and on, it's repetitive. Which brings me to my next point. Hemingway also likes to use the same words over and over again. It's annoying.

"If they killed men as they did this fall the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were cooked. The thing was not to recognize it."

I'm not okay with using the same word three sentences in a row. It's not only repetitive, it's lazy. I realize that he's going for a certain attitude with Lt. Henry. If the one he was going for was "annoying" he certainly succeeded.

Another reason why Hemingway is a bad writer is that he can't seem to keep track of how many people are in a scene at a time.

At some point, Lt. Henry is captured by some Italian anarchists or something and he has to escape by jumping in a river. Now, I read the chapter like three times. Lt. Henry escapes by himself and is floating down the river on a log. By himself. Did I mention by himself?

"I was afraid of cramps and I hoped we would move toward the shore. We went down the river in a long curve."

"We were floating more slowly."

Now what I'm wondering is why he keeps saying we? What "we"?? The log he's floating on is not a person! It doesn't designate "we."

I get that this particular offense is only partly Hemingway's fault. The bottom line is that sometimes writers don't pay attention to details like pronouns and spelling. Which is why God invented editors. It's an editor's job to point all this crap and make sure everything makes sense.

But this doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Okay. To summarize my opinion of A Farewell to Arms, I think it's a crappy excuse for an autobiographical novel.

It's okay to have a unique writing style, to do something other people haven't done before. But at least keep track of how many people are in your scenes. Or at least have a decent editor. And at least use interesting words in your run-on sentences. I don't want to feel like I'm reading a high school English paper instead of so-called "classic literature."

You can't have a main character that people don't like, and you certainly can't have him fall in love with a leading lady that's as dumb as a bag of rocks. There has to be some sort of internal struggle, and he has to end up differently than when he started. Lt. Henry is the same person at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning.

The thing that gets me is that the ending really is quite sad. Bad things happen to the main characters. However Lt. Henry and Catherine Barkley are such poorly written characters that I just don't care. Call me insensitive, but I really honestly don't care. I won't tell you exactly what happens; I'll leave at least something a surprise in case you actually want to read it, although I wouldn't recommend it.

I hated A Farewell to Arms. Can you tell?


  1. Haha! This was AWESOME! I hate Hemingway too! I had a class on him with Dr. Rogner senior year, and even Rogner didn't like him much. We didn't read any of his novels, just his short stories (it was a literary criticism class with focus on both the poet Christina Rossetti and Hemingway, so we didn't have time) and I had the same complaints about them! The characters were chauvinistic pigs who sat around drinking heavily and being "manly." The stories were boring, not much happened, and the writing was repetitive. I honestly don't understand why he is considered a great writer.

    P.S. Oh, and did I mention that all of his characters were racist bigots as well? Well, they were.

    Christl Climans (formerly Bishop)

  2. Ha. How do you really feel, Leah?

    I totally disagree about what you said about Hemingway not being a good writer. I absolutely adore his long repetitive run-ons. I can't get enough of htem. To me that sentence is like watching the snow falling. You sit there and watch and then look and something else and then look back at the snow. It speaks of the condition of the mind.

  3. Yes, but style is only part of the battle. The characters in A Farewell to Arms were terribly written. Especially Catherine. And in the end, I was left wondering what in the hell I read it for. Lt. Henry was no different, he was a completely static, one-dimensional character.