Saturday, June 3, 2023

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, With One of the Great Openings in American Literature)

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”—Nobel Literature laureate and American novelist and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), A Farewell to Arms (1929)

In a post from nine years ago, I discussed how, by force of will—anywhere from 39 attempts (the author’s estimate) to 70—Ernest Hemingway came up with an ending to A Farewell to Arms that finally satisfied him.

I don’t know if Hemingway struggled quite so much with his opening to this novel from his golden period, but I do know that it is magical in a way that his bleak conclusion isn’t, and probably couldn’t be.

The cadences of the sentences—filled with short words, but featuring multiple clauses that add complexity—feel inspired by the King James Bible in their constant repetition of “and.” The details of the landscape were born of close observation by a writer who, on childhood fishing trips with his father, developed a lifelong love for nature.

Put all of this together and the results are lyrical. But Hemingway has also slipped in, as naturally as the pebbles and dust he notices, three symbols that will dominate the rest of the novel: the plain, the mountains, and the river.

The plain is the scene of suffering and death, created in this case by the havoc caused by World War I. Even the movement of troops through the village disturb the natural order, raising dust on the trees. The mountains come to represent refuge and home, the transitory “separate peace” that narrator Lt. Frederic Henry and his lover Catherine Barkley treasure.

The river signifies rebirth, a departure from the devastation of war into a new realm of freedom and love, where Frederic will dive to escape the carnage and madness of war.

World War I wounded civilization as a whole and Hemingway in particular. The wound to the then 18-year-old ambulance driver on the Italian front was physical (fragments from a mortar shell entered his right foot and knee, striking his thighs, scalp and hand—and, most ominously, the first in a series of concussions) and psychological (a belief that violence could intrude at any time on life).

For all the granular physical description in the opening of A Farewell to Arms, it paradoxically gains power through the blurring of other details. “In the summer of that year”—which year? “A village”—which one? Likewise, the river and mountains go unnamed. It is all so mysterious that the reader wants to know more, but at the same time the experience has become universal, beyond a particular time and place.

Although Hemingway has been frequently criticized for his treatment of the women in his life and his fiction, two female writers were looked beyond his blustering macho and found inspiration in the powerful opening of A Farewell to Arms. Joan Didion analyzed it in a 1998 essay for The New Yorker, but had already hailed it in a 1978 interview for The Paris Review:

“He taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”

Equally seismic was the impact on the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, one of Hemingway’s most perceptive and eloquent advocates in the Ken Burns biography of the Nobel laureate. In her own 1984 interview with The Paris Review, she explains how she first encountered this passage:

“Shortly after I arrived in London I saw an advertisement for a lecture given by Arthur Mizener [author of a book on F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise] on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one. So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt—Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write.”

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