- - Friday, August 3, 2012

By Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, $27
352 pages

Fortunate indeed is the publisher, all too rare in the 21st century, that not only bears a name distinguished in the annals of literature but has inherited a glorious list of books that it had the honor to publish. The house of Scribner, now part of a large conglomerate, still carries its proud individual name and can bring out a new edition, suitably annotated, of one of the greatest books it has ever published. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” stands, more than 80 years after its first appearance, as a towering ornament of American literature. Seeing this new edition of the great classic novel, with the very same cover that adorned it back in 1929, is somehow moving; how much more so it must be for its publisher then and now.

“A Farewell to Arms” is one of those texts that transcends its impetus. Yes, it is undeniably a powerful denunciation and expose of the horrors of war, specifically World War I, as is clear from Hemingway’s passionate introduction to a new edition reprinted in this volume. Written shortly after another equally but differently terrible global conflict, it seethes with his hatred of war. But it radiates something else as well, a different kind of passion — for creativity, for writing, for spinning the gold of literature out of his experience:

“I remember living in the book and making up what happened in it every day. Making the country and the people and the things that happened I was happier than I had ever been. Each day I read the book through from the beginning to the point where I went on writing and each day I stopped when I was still going good and when I knew what would happen next.”

What you have here is quite simply the recipe for creating a masterpiece, the genuine overwhelming pleasure that can only come from a great artist feeling that special satisfaction arising from knowing what he has actually produced is worthy of its inspiration.

The unspoken ingredient is, of course, that touch of genius necessary for something of the highest order:

“The fact the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could have only one end. But finding you were able to make something up; to create truly enough so that it made you happy to read it; and to do this every day you worked was something that gave a greater pleasure than any I had ever known. Beside it nothing else mattered.”

Precisely. Thanks to assiduous biographers, we all know that Hemingway didn’t actually serve as a soldier in World War I, that he didn’t marry the American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky on whom he based the tragic English heroine Catherine, that their fates were very different. But there is something so authentic, so profoundly true about the story he wrote that none of this matters.

Which is why “A Farewell to Arms” has stood the test of time. Unlike Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which both appeared the same year, it soars to another level way beyond pacifism. In the end, it’s the writing, that spare prose packed with layered emotions, that makes it a true classic. Graves may have captured the bitter cup of war and Remarque the indelible image, but Hemingway had the greater wisdom. He knew what W.H. Auden encapsulated in his great poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” a decade later: That while even the most earth-shattering events take place, everyday life goes on.

And the novel’s ending, as heart-rending to read today as the first time I encountered it a half century ago, revolves around an everyday tragedy, nothing to do with war or its consequences. This edition provides myriad alternate endings Hemingway came up with. Good as they are, none can match the spare grandeur of the one he actually chose. But all those others remind us of the amazing fecundity of his imagination and of the disciplined taste that led him to make that right choice.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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