Lieutenant Henry is an American. He’s in the Italian army. The time period is World War I. Henry drives ambulances. He drinks a lot. He eats a lot. He falls in love with a nurse named Catherine Barker. Or at least they get it on a lot. And then he drinks some more. And she drinks too. But he drinks more.
(I had too much fun writing up that synopsis. I hope those who have read Hemingway will get a snicker out of it.)
This is the third book I’ve read by Hemingway. My first (and favorite) was The Old Man and the Sea, followed several years later by For Whom the Bell Tolls. Interestingly, I’ve run into one of two different patterns with Hemingway. Either I seem to love his work more the older he was when he wrote it (Old Man was the oldest, Bells was in the middle, and Farewell is the youngest), or I have just progressively liked his works less as I get older myself. Or there is no pattern and both of these seemingly meaningful patterns are merely coincidences. I loved Old Man. I enjoyed Bells. I really didn’t like Farewell at all.
Hemingway’s an interesting writer. His characters, on the surface, don’t feel like real people. Women, in particular, are very flat. Dialogue is repetitive and circular. Non-dialogue sentences are clipped and fragmented, or go on in huge run-ons. With Hemingway’s books, you have to somehow pierce through this skin and get under it in order to see that his characters are not lifeless; his women are not flat; his dialogue and sentence structures mean something. While it took some adjusting to in the other Hemingway books I’ve read, I always managed to get under that surface. But with this one? No. I stayed above it, like it was an impenetrable bubble, the entire time I read. That was, of course, very frustrating to me, but perhaps now I can understand a bit more when people tell me they’ve tried to read Hemingway and walked away from the experience bewildered and/or frustrated.
For some reason, I just could not get into this book. It felt so sloppy compared to his other books. The others circled back on themselves and all the details were important. This one just bounced randomly from one event to the next, with a brief (and futile) attempt to refer to many of them in the last few pages, only to leave them behind again. I’d heard this was Hemingway’s masterpiece, the one everyone loves, but it just left me completely cold. And sad. Not sad at the story (which ends, as all Hemingway ends, in very predictable tragic circumstances). I couldn’t get worked up about the story at all. But sad because no matter how hard I worked at this book, I couldn’t figure out what was so special about it. The relationship between Henry and Catherine was ridiculous and not one I would at all classify as love. The war descriptions were mostly absent except in two short places. None of the characters were developed enough for me to care about them. The whole thing read more like a journal entry in Hemingway prose than like a book.
I don’t get it. All I can think is that I could never penetrate into the story in order to see that his characters had life. Maybe the love story felt like love for other readers. I could even see myself feeling like it was love if I’d been able to get that deep or invested or attached. But I couldn’t. The whole experience of reading this book felt like an utter FAIL and I’m sorry that it was, because I’ve always, always loved Hemingway in the past. Despite all the things about the author himself that I dislike, I love his books. Perhaps in the future, I should just stick with the later ones.