BOOK (1929)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


A Farewell to Arms
by Ernest Hemingway

When Ernest Hemingway published his second full-length novel, A Farewell to Arms, in 1929, his writing career was just kicking into gear. After the success of his debut The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was dealing with the difficult birth of his son by his second wife, Pauline, as well as his father's suicide. Alternating between homes in Arkansas, Florida and France, the then-30-year-old worked on drafts of his first world war-era novel to perfection before it was released serially in Scribner's Magazine.

Highly autobiographical, it's the story of a romance between a young American named Frederic Henry, who suffers shrapnel wounds due to a mortar shell during the war, and Catherine Barkley, the British nurse he falls in love with. At the same time, the novel focuses on the endless drudgery, futility and ultimate senselessness of war. The latter is perceived through the eyes of Henry, a lieutenant in the Italian army's ambulance corps.

Over the course of the novel, Henry and Barkley fall for each other and she becomes pregnant before he returns to battle, only to see the Austrian-German army pummel the Italian army at the Battle of Caporetto. In real life, Hemingway was wounded during the war and was taken care of by Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse eight years his senior. Hemingway became infatuated with von Kurowsky. She was expected to marry him on his return to the US but instead sent him a letter ending their relationship. They never met again.

Doom and death pervade the novel. 'At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera,' says Henry early on, setting the tone. At another point, Catherine says: 'I'm afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it,' before continuing 'And sometimes I see you dead in it.'

Henry would eventually escape the war, via a river's current, only to face Catherine again. But their elusive happiness is overshadowed by an eventual stillborn child and death due to a haemorrhage. 'The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places,' Hemingway writes as a central theme of the book. 'But those it will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.'

Upon publication, Hemingway's status as a leading author was secured, and his terse 'iceberg' style of writing would become a literary benchmark. Two more wives, Pulitzers, a Nobel prize and a life of manly adventure would follow, but his continued use of rain as symbolism and suicide at the age of 61 suggests that his mind was a constant storm, occasionally buffeted by clearing mists and sunlight.