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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Farewell to Arms

Rereading this fifty years after one's first encounter with the esteemed man's man and coming across this sentence describing one of the protag's nurses:

"She was young and pretty."

Further on, this:

"It was a clean little town and there was a fine fountain in the square."

And one thinks, 'Well one thing's for certain, one is certainly not reading Proust.'

Then this famed (and rightly so) passage:

"I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist . . . . If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. It 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."

Description of characters' appearance, facial animation, gestures, tone of voice, body orientation in space, backstories, air or manner, habits of mind--all predominantly absent, minimal at best; next to no tropes, cryptic allusions, symbolism; chronology straightforward--but a level of authenticity of experience, a feel, solid as an oak--one believes every word the man writes, unconditionally.

His aesthetic of leaving as much crucial information out of a story as possible, in order to create a work of art with the majestic movement of an iceberg, is clearly displayed in this novel, where major experiences of narrator/protag Frederick Henry--his rendezvous with an exploding artillery shell, his shooting of a deserter in the back, his near death at the hands of rogue officers in the Italian army, the death of his nurse girlfriend Catherine Berkley (sp?)--are stated in the simplest terms, the associated emotions barely mentioned, putting one in the presence of a classic Man of Few Words, which is how heroes are supposed to be, no? The contrast between the lavish attention he gives to describing landscapes and his minimalist treatment of major emotional events is a characteristic to be found in a number of his novels. And the subtle foreshadowing of Catherine's impending death by Frederick's discovery of dead flowers in a garbage can he has inspected to see if there's any food in it for a stray dog he's come across, is creditable.

I forgot virtually all of this work, but vividly recognized the scene where the Italian officers are interrogated one at a time and then shot when I came to it. Forgetting what one reads leads one at times to regard the entire intellectual enterprise as chasing the wind, but there's not a whole lot to be done about it at this point, print perhaps the deepest form of hypnosis there is. In the end it's print that captures one; no matter the subject or style, one has to have it, endlessly.

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