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Pop the question: “WW I fiction?” and 10 out of 10 who have an answer at all will say “A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway,” perhaps equal the proportion of those who will say, All Quiet and the Western Front, that guy with a girl’s name…” [Eric Maria Remarque].  After that the titles rising to the lips will burble slowly.  Path’s of Glory, (1935) Canadian Humphrey Cobb’s withering dissection of French official malfeasance, Under Fire,  (1916) by Henri Barbusse, Three Soldiers (1920) by John Dos Passos, might eventually shake free from memory.  Pat Barker’s powerful Regeneration trilogy, (1991-1995) and more recently The Absolutist, by John Boyne will make the lists of some.  Famous in its time, H.G. Wells Mr Britling Sees It Through will likely be known by none.

The odd thing is that the two leaders could hardly be more dissimilar. All Quiet on the Western Front is both a good novel, and a very good novel about the war — with an explicit anti-war attitude.  It was an overnight hit in 1928-29 Germany (serialized in a newspaper) and continued to sell until it was banned in the Hitler bound years. Sales are estimated at something close to 2.5 million in the first 18 months in print.  Over time, in 32 translations, it became famous around the world.  Nothing has quite approached it….  The descriptions of bombardments, the injuries, the fear, the filth, the food and lack of food, the rats, the rain.  A few times, the love.  A leave home, and eventually the narrator’s own death. Henri Barbusse’s La Feu (Underfire) preceded  All Quiet by 13 years, and was one of the few war fictions written during the war itself.  Many of the scenes — French and German– could be transposed from one novel to the other.  Barbusse, however, doesn’t quite lift his day-to-day account of trench war and bombardments into a novel, as Remarque does.  It reads more as a composed journal of those years, and despite the horror, and same anti-war sensibility as All Quiet, it sometimes bogs down; we can’t distinguish one atrocity from another, nor track back our recollections of the soldiers as they die one by one.

A Farewell to Arms is something else entirely.  In fact a case could be made that it is not a war novel at all.  It is an all-American, male, adventure story, with a few days at the Italian front against Austrian and Croat troops in the Alto-Adige, as a background for Frederic Henry’s big adventure.  It is composed of several helpings of prostitutes in Milan and at the Front, plenty of insults-as-male-bonding, some priest baiting, and plenty of grousing about the war.  Henry laconically goes to the front twice as the oddest sort of ambulance man –one who thinks in strategic military terms, not logistical medical ones:

“I meant tactically speaking in a war where there was some movement a succession of mountains were nothing to hold as a line because it was too easy to turn them. You should have possible mobility and a mountain is not very mobile. Also, people always over-shoot down hill. If the flank were turned, the best men would be left on the highest mountains. I did not believe in a war in mountains. I had thought about it a lot, I said.

We don’t know much about him, or why he volunteered.  Apparently he has been in Italy — and this part of it– for some time.  He knowledge of the terrain, towns and roads at times feels preternatural. Perhaps it was fellow feeling for the Italians, or because he was a young American and “why not?  I do what I want.”  In any event he is wounded on the first day he goes out.  His knee is lacerated and he is carried away; one of his enlisted drivers is killed and another wounded.  The description of the whistling trench mortar –which in All Quiet occurs over and over again– takes a couple of paragraphs at best –though very good paragraphs:

I saw the star-shells go up and burst and float whitely and rockets going up and heard the bombs, all this in a moment, and then I heard close to me some one saying “Mama Mia! Oh, mama Mia!” I pulled and twisted and got my legs loose finally and turned around and touched him. It was Passini and when I touched him he screamed. His legs were toward me and I saw in the dark and the light that they were both smashed above the knee. One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser and the stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected. He bit his arm and moaned, “Oh mama mia, mama Mia,” then, “Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh Jesus shoot me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia oh purest lovely Mary shoot me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Oh Jesus lovely Mary stop.

And shortly after:

I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid. Oh, God, I said, get me out of here.

 Taken to Milan then the story shifts to what most readers remember about it —a story about the other arms, the arms of love. The wounded American charms the English maid, as he has ever since the two nations stopped fighting each other in 1812: he with boyish insouciance, flouting the rules, having wine and its variations smuggled into his hospital room, and charming her out of her British reserve and into his hospital bed — over night it seems.  By the second meeting she is calling him ‘darling.’  They talk baby-talk to each other, walking along the streets of Milan,  once the knee is strong enough,  finding border-line hotels.

“Come over, please. I’m a good girl again.” I looked over at the bed. She was smiling.

I went over and sat on the bed beside her and kissed her.

“You’re my good girl.”

“I’m certainly yours,” she said.

After several months of healing, and enough time for Catherine to get pregnant, Henry is ordered back to Caporetto where a great offensive is to take place. He takes a crowded, uncomfortable train-ride, not unlike those many of us have taken in Europe, sleeping on the floor on top of packs and feet. On the way up the mountain roads there is time of plenty of anti-war talk, mostly from the mouths of the rural men who are drivers with him.

“Listen. There is nothing as bad as war. We in the auto-ambulance cannot even realize at all how bad it is. When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them that war is made.”

The great battle turns into a massive retreat of the Italian forces.  Unwisely, Henry, as the officer of the small ambulance contingent, directs his truck and cars out of the clogged up line of retreat into the muddy, wheel-sucking side roads.  He loses his trucks, shoots (executes) one of his men, and flees on foot across country.   He loses another of his men to Italian fire, falls into the same retreat he had earlier left, sees the murderous Italian Battle Police shooting officers for “abandoning their troops,” fights his way past them, throws himself into a raging river, walks across county by foot, and hops a freight to  Milan.  Really!  Indiana Jones 50 years before its time…and all done with the shrug-and-shoulder-it attitude that was Hemingway’s regular imagined man (a counter I suppose to the suicidal man who lived inside him.)

Then there is the love story and the sad farewell to those arms, but  not before the adventure continues — a hair-raising row 35 km north across Lake Maggiori from Stresa to Switzerland which, unlike the movies, he does with Catherine in the stern. [For me, another stupid Frederick Henry decision.  Catherine has a British passport.  There is no reason she, pregnant, could not be driven to the border and meet Henry there.] She offers to take a turn at the oars, and is allowed, for a brief meal-respite but, it’s a man’s world, rowing blisters and all.

“Tell me when you want to stop.”

“All right” I took another drink of the brandy, then took hold of the two gunwales of the boat and moved forward.

“No. I’m going beautifully.”

“Go on back to the stern. I’ve had a grand rest.”

My curiosity in re-reading this, and immersing myself into many other WW I novels was not simply to pass the time with misery, or to review the literature, nor was it  an attempt to tally the truth of any of stories.  My obsession in life is to understand why war, almost universally, is considered to be a glorious undertaking, a maker of men and the forge of nations. And just as universally the actual cost is unbearable even to contemplate, much less to live through.  As a result, I suppose, we don’t contemplate. We move on, and after some slight forgetting time, get all glory-goofy for the next one.  The narrative we tell ourselves  of glory chanced, glory gained comes in part from those spun by the literary, and now cinematic, elites, though mostly of course from the political-military power-elites. But there is a countervailing narrative that waxes and wanes.  People have found and insisted upon one that says war is always a loss, always brings the unexpected in its wake, even though the expected should be enough to stop war forever.  The real glory is in finding other ways to solve enormous human disagreements.

What I have been looking for is how have writers and their novels contributed, or not, to this counter narrative? All Quiet at the Western, Under Fire, Generals Die in Bed take a straight forward “this is war and this is hell” approach, depending on explicit and gruesome descriptions to find their way into readers hearts and re-make their dispositions to celebrate and participate in war.  They are all narratives packed with life at the front, in the trenches, under fire — with excursions to the food, and lack of it, and interestingly the foraging for food and shelter by the soldiers themselves,  the passing dreams of women– but mostly about the deaths, in graphic, and repeated detail, of their friends.

A Farewell is not conceived this way. The battle scenes are sparse.  Even the great retreat, which the 1932 film version makes into quite a war scene with diving airplanes and tat-tat-tatting machine guns, is not that,  Lt Henry’s execution of his Sargent for desertion aside. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming sense of an adventure story there is something that people identify in Farewell To Arms as anti-war, despite the not so clear views of Henry himself and despite the lack of punishing graphical images.

In every conversation, and there are plenty, not a character, aside from Henry himself, speaks up for the necessity of, or the honor of fighting the war. The major to whom Henry reports on his way back to duty after the knee repair:

I am very tired of this war.  If I was away I do not believe I would come back.” “Is it so bad?” “Yes. It is so bad and worse.

Rinaldi, his pleasure seeking surgeon friend:

“This war is terrible,”Rinaldi said.  “Come on. We’ll both get drunk and be cheerful. Then we’ll go get the ashes dragged. Then we’ll feel fine.”

The longest, most detailed critique of the war comes from the priest, mixed in with a common theme of many WW I war novels, the separation between the officers and the men not only as to order and obey, but as to support of the war.

“The officers don’t see anything.”
“Some of them do. Some are very delicate and feel worse than any of us.”
“They are mostly different.”
“It is not education or money. It is something else. Even if they had education or money men like Passini would not wish to be officers. I would not be an officer.”
“You rank as an officer. I am an officer.”
“I am not really. You are not even an Italian. You are a foreigner. But you are nearer the officers than you are to the men.”
“What is the difference?”
“I cannot say it easily. There are people who would make war. In this country there are many like that. There are other people who would not make war.”
“But the first ones make them do it.”
“And I help them.”
“You are a foreigner.
“You are a patriot.”
“And the ones who would not make war? Can they stop it?”
“I do not know.” He looked out of the window again. I watched his face.
“Have they ever been able to stop it?”
“They are not organized to stop things and when they get organized their leaders sell them out.”
“Then it’s hopeless?”
“It is never hopeless. But sometimes I cannot hope. I try always to hope but sometimes I cannot.”
“Maybe the war will be over.”
“I hope so.”

Elsewhere the priest tells Henry

“It has been a terrible summer,” said the priest. He was surer of himself now than when I had gone away. “You cannot believe how it has been. Except that you have been there and you know how it can be. Many people have realized the war this summer. Officers whom I thought could never realize it realize it now.”

Much later, as Henry is about to row to Switzerland he talks to the barman and boat owner

“Tell me how goes the war.”


“I don’t have to go. I’m too old, like Count Greffi.”

“Maybe you’ll have to go yet.”

“Next year they’ll call my class. But I won’t go.”

“What will you do?”

“Get out of the country. I wouldn’t go to war.

And Count Greffi, an old acquaintance in Stresa:

“What do you think of the war really?” I asked.

 “I think it is stupid.”

The clearest statement of the authorial attitude is this:

Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

And in the marvelous line that comes as Henry approaches the murderous Battle Police:

The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.

Though this is not an indictment of war itself, its cynical realism is a pretty good proxy. And yet, Lt Henry himself, after making the bad decision to take his little caravan out of the general line of retreat, and finding his trucks mired in the absolutely predictable mud, shoots a man who, following Henry’s own line of reasoning, chooses to walk away from a situation that doesn’t suit him.

“I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired. I missed and they both started to run. I shot three times and dropped one. The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.”

And then, not satisfied with himself, he aides in his execution.

“I commenced to reload the empty clip. Bonello came up. “Let me go finish him,” he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road. Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger. The pistol did not fire. “You have to cock it,” I said. He cocked it and fired twice.”

The murder is mentioned as a matter of pride a few moments later, the cars abandoned and the three heading across country to Udine.

That’s one thing I can always remember. I killed that of a sergeant.”

“What will you say in confession?” Aymo asked.

“I’ll say, ‘Bless me, father, I killed a sergeant. ” They all laughed.

Descriptions of the havoc of war are sparse and indirect

“Tell me, I have never seen a retreat—if there is a retreat how are all the wounded evacuated?”

“They are not. They take as many as they can and leave the rest.”


We both went flat and with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick. Gordini got up and ran for the dugout. I was after him, holding the cheese, its smooth surface covered with brick dust. Inside the dugout were the three drivers sitting against the wall, smoking.   then they go on eating the cheese

After river and train escape he finally gets to the hospital in Milan and asks for Catherine.  Unlike the 1932 movie, in which love for her was the motive for fleeing the line of retreat, in the novel there is no such thing.  The last time we heard Henry mention her was in a talking-in-a-dream sequence, directly following an encounter with two fleeing “virgins” and manly wishes about that.  From then on, the detour off on muddy, roads, the abandonment of the vehicles and setting off on foot, dodging German and Italian troops, and losing Amyo to Italian bullets, to witnessing officers being shot, to escaping down river in all the wetness, cold and danger — not once is there mention of Catherine.  Finally, in the train heading to Milan, he remembers:

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.

And then, in the prototypical Hemingway man, the war is over for him:

You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire. … You were out of it now. You had no more obligation.

Laconic as always.  One of the men he had lost, had in fact been shot by him. And the remarkable idea there is no obligation, because “I” decide. Like a boy: ” I was curious so I joined; I’m finished now, so I’ll go.”

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more

Henry, like Hemingway himself, volunteered for the war, not as a soldier, but an ambulance driver, some three and a half years into the madness.  Hemingway himself can’t be blamed for not manning-up earlier; he was only 18 at the time of his arrival.  But for Hemingway’s Henry the point was the adventure.  He chose when to go and when he got tired of it.  He chose to leave, not because he was appalled by the killing.  He, after all, was a killer himself. And not because he was drawn by desire to Catherine.  He left because “it was stupid.”  Not a profound indictment of mass slaughter, but perhaps as good, because as widely held, as any.   And he left in the ur-American adventure story way — into the river, clinging to logs, daring cold and drowning, on his own, depending on no one, canny and brave until he is out of danger.

And counter to most remembrances of the novel I have to ask, is it even a love story?

I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.

Of course he comes to love her in the bucolic Swiss winter sojourn before the great spring tragedy.  And of course he suffers.  That by itself doesn’t make it a love story. The story is about Frederick Henry’s adventures, not the elements of their growing love.  He knows little about her in the end, except that she’s a dear and brave and sweet.  And she dies.

He orders the nurses out of Catherine’s room but he doesn’t stay there long.  “It was like saying goodbye to a statue.”

What an odd thing to say.  Volumes have been written about the presence of a recently dead loved one, the flood of memories, the regrets, the details of the person and of the love shared.  Frederick Henry is an impressive block of a man.

So for me, it is an adventure story, yes.  But it is remembered by many readers as a favorite novel of their youth, one which figures in a war somehow, and that the ‘take-away’ is that war is ‘stupid.”  So it seems that a novel may by anti-war without being ‘of’ the war.   There were quite a few novels following WW I that would be considered anti-war yet with few very battle scenes in them .  e e cummings’, not so well known The Enormous Room takes place in a French concentration camp, with little or no in-the-trenches descriptions.  Much of Virginia Woolf’s fiction concerns itself with the WW I experience, and its severe impact upon her characters and the British people, without ever ‘going into the trenches.’

It may be that the best way to a reader’s heart is not by direct assault, as the novels we think of a ‘anti-war’ do, but as Farewell does, indirectly.  Give us a good story first, with a person we can identify with, and all the rest follows. Even if  A Farewell to Arms is not be an anti-war book so much as an anti-stupid-war book that is a bit of an advance.  With no guidance from the characters as to how to discern the difference between stupid and not stupid wars we’ve gone perhaps a step or two: not fighting stupid wars is better than fighting them.  And an individual can decide.

And of course, despite the impact measured by sales, and testimony, for All Quiet on the Western Front, we know how little its message took hold in Germany.   Eight years later much of the German nation was ready to go to war again.

So my personal jury on A Farewell to Arms is still out.  It is not a war novel for me, but it may be, for some, an anti-war novel, even for me.  There isn’t one way to ‘transform and illuminate’ as Jeffrey Walsh says of e e cummings’ The Enormous Room.  Just as the culture of the glory of war gives many reasons for its celebration, so a culture of war resistance must have many openings to enter into it.  I am not attracted to Frederick Henry and his kind,  experience seekers who betray those around them, without a backward look.  For others though, he is attractive and through his story comes the powerful idea that some war at least is ‘stupid.’ In my search for fiction that moves the needle of anti-war sentiment, I’m not complaining.