There was immediate agreement in the group that this book fell into two different stories - the war story and the love story - which didn't really fit together. Everyone agreed that the war sequences were brilliantly executed in Hemingway's famously spare and telling prose, but everyone hated the episodes concerning the relationship with Catherine, which were chiefly conducted in dialogue and shockingly flabby and coy in comparison - or, as John pointed out, in comparison to Hemingway's short stories - and which certainly don't withstand a feminist reading (which Hemingway's short story Cat in the Rain, for instance, does). This is the exchange (much cut by me) when Catherine has asked Henry about his experience with prostitutes:
... "When a man stays with a girl ... she just says what he wants her to? ... I will. I'll say just what you wish and I'll do what you wish and then you'll never want any other girls, will you?" She looked at me very happily. "I'll do what you want and say what you want and then I'll be a great success, won't I?"John said it was perhaps therefore necessary to read the novel historically, that is, as a period piece. Ann found the book of great historical interest, dealing as it does with an aspect of the First World War usually overlooked, attention tending to be concentrated on the Somme. She said she felt that she almost wished that the love story had been left out as the war story was so searing and vivid.
"Yes ... You're so lovely."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at it yet."
"I want what you want. There isn't any me any more. Just what you want."
We talked about the prose in those war sections. People were immensely impressed by Hemingway's ability to show rather than tell, to pick out telling details that obviate the need for distancing narratorial statements or explanations. Ann pointed to the horrific moment when Henry is carried wounded in an ambulance, dripped on by blood from the wound of the man above him. The blood suddenly stops dripping, and so Henry and the reader know that the man's heart has stopped pumping: he has died. Hemingway refrains from actually stating this last, but through that one detail allows Henry and the reader to think and experience it for themselves. Ann wondered if people still write like that, however. John and I commented that 'show not tell' is in fact the great creative writing mantra of the present day - people call on the legacy of Hemingway all the time - but that we felt it's often misinterpreted or badly done, with authors focusing solely on the most boring and mundane details that actually don't tell you anything about the inner lives of characters or the dynamics of situations and indeed mask them.
John said he felt there was a bit of that going on in this book, actually. Several of the chapters end with something strangely inconsequential and quotidian, such as 'We all got up and left the table' or 'I was terrifically hungry'(after the escaped Henry jumps a freight train to find it full of guns). I said I thought that perhaps this was a deliberate illustration of the lack of significance, or alienation from significance, occasioned by war, although I did agree that it often resulted in a disconcerting lack of resonance. Someone suggested that this, and indeed the whole prose style with its distanced spareness (but which paradoxically can create a lack of distance, as seen above), was a deliberate illustration of the narrating Henry's shell shock. Ann said that there is a school of thought that it is rather a result of Hemingway's own shell shock, with which I tended to agree. There was some demurring at this which was taken as a suggestion of lack of narrative control on Hemingway's part, but I pointed out that you can have both: writers can write instinctually out of their own psyches and then become aware of how it's serving their artistic purpose and consequently work consciously on honing the style (in fact, I'd say that that's fundamentally how the greatest writing is done).
I said that the passage that really struck me in the book occurs in the chapter where Henry is hiding in the train wagon surrounded by guns:
My knee was stiff but it had been very satisfactory. Valentini [the doctor who had operated on him] had done a fine job. I had done half the retreat on foot and swum part of the Tagliamento with his knee. It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more. The head was mine, the inside of the belly. It was very hungry in there. I could feel it turn over on itself. The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much to remember.It was at this point that the meaning of the novel fell into place for me: it's about the loss and fragmentation of self created by war. In this context, the schism between the two stories of the book can be seen as artistically apt: those two sides of Henry's experience are in fact irreconcilable. Indeed, the passage above goes on, in a prose that mimics with elisions his distressed state of mind:
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas and my lying with Catherine on the floor of the car. Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.However, it's true that on the whole, throughout the terrible things that happen to him, Henry does retain a single-minded and obsessive romantic passion for Catherine, and someone in the group suggested that this wasn't actually very psychologically realistic - would he have the emotional space? Ann added that it's absent from most depictions of men's experience of active service in war, illustrating the alienation from such emotions created by active service. John wondered if it could be the result of the injection of autobiographical material into Henry's story: Hemingway was famously a passionate romantic when it came to women, and, although wounded, was less involved in active service than Henry. It was very clear, however, that the scene in which Henry is hit by a shell came from direct experience - no one in the group was in any doubt about that.
Still, people in the group went on musing about the necessity of the love story, which, in fact, takes over completely once Henry and Catherine are safely escaped to Switzerland. I think it was Mark who suggested it was there because Henry has to be a Knight in Shining Armour - there's a lot of macho humblebrag concerning Henry's decoration, like Hemingway's own, for bravery when wounded (oh, he doesn't think he did anything brave, but all the others insist he has to get a medal) - and of course a woman is essential to this heroic package. Some of the men in the group then also said they had wondered about the likelihood of the heroic journey that Henry makes with Catherine in a small rowing boat in the dark up Lake Maggiore to freedom in Switzerland - another instance, they thought, of dubious heroic posturing.
Everyone thought however that there was a very different tone to the ending, all heroics gone, when Catherine undergoes a horrific Caesarean section which Henry is allowed to watch from the operating theatre viewing gallery - once again, there was no doubt that this was drawn from real-life experience. The tragic outcome had moved group members to tears, and John commented that it's interesting that none of the book before this creates this effect, as if in formal enactment of the emotional numbing of war before this final, intensely personal moment.
He then added, however, that he thought it was significant that Catherine dies in childbirth. Although one of Hemingway's wives did undergo a Caesarean section, she did not die, but the marriage eventually failed due to his unfaithfulness (as did two of his other marriages) (and the real-life nurse on whom Catherine is based left him before they could be married). Looking at the relationship between Henry and Catherine, John said, it was clear that it would never have lasted, based as it was on romantic and narcissistic obsession - the heavily pregnant Catherine says to Henry of the coming baby as they walk in the Swiss woods: "She won't come between us, will she? The little brat" - and by killing off Catherine and the baby, Hemingway can preserve Henry's status as a (faithful) tragic hero while setting him free.
We all laughed at this, and agreed it was true, in spite of our having found the ending so sad. Once again Ann wondered how people might have read this at the time of publication. It seemed to me that such an irony would be unlikely to have occurred to them - we were looking at the book very much through a post-feminist perspective - and once again we came back to our major problem of clashing perspectives through which to view the book.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here