A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929) 355 p.


I’m more a fan of Hemingway’s short stories than his novels, and the only reason I read this was because I was travelling in Italy and like to match my holiday reading to my location. But I liked this far more than his other novels, because it actually has a plot. Following an American fighting for the Italian army during World War I, A Farewell to Arms takes us through wartime, devastating injury, a long convalescent period, blossoming love, a return to the front, a catastrophic retreat, desertion, a hurried escape to Switzerland and personal tragedy, all in a couple of hundred pages.

Hemingway still maintains an obsession with making sure we know precisely what the protagonist is having for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and precisely what he’s drinking at any given moment (grappa and vermouth, mostly) but who am I to deny a Pulitzer winner his schtick? There’s a particularly good sequence, with shades of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the protagonist is detained along with dozens of other officers following the rout at Caporetto, and witnesses them being quickly questioned and then executed – a reminder that fascism was not many years away from seizing Italy.

“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

This is also a book which I’m glad I read on an ereader. Obviously in a physical book you can tell very easily when you’re approaching the end of the story; in an ereader, your only clue is “page 300 of 355” at the bottom of the screen. This edition happened to have a lot of afterwords and appendices tacked on to the end, and so I thought I still had another hundred-odd pages left when the ending – one of Hemingway’s most emotionally brutal – arrived unexpectedly. I liked that.