A Curious Farewell | Pushing the Wave

A Curious Farewell

Culture, 7 October 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Lake Maggiore by Night
The shores of Lake Maggiore, Italy
SPOILER ALERT
Last week I mentioned I was in Stresa, Italy, but what I didn’t say was it led to an unexpected literary coincidence.

I was at the time reading A Farewell to Arms, by Earnest Hemingway, and arrived at Lake Maggiore when the story reached Frederic Henry’s experiences there with Catherine Barkley at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees.

Before I go any further, I should say this is a book I have hesitated over reading ever since I became properly aware of Hemingway while at university.

I didn’t like then, and still don’t like, the way he is worshipped by a certain kind of bloke with a penchant for reading. His reputation suggests he is an escape valve for men who are frustrated at their self-perceived lack of masculinity, and that is not really my bag, as it were.

Consequently the novel sat among my to-be-read books for years and years and years. Every time it rose towards the top of the pile, I recoiled at the author’s reputation and pushed it to one side, choosing something else to read instead. Then I let it be swamped by new additions and disappear from view for another year or two.

But a few weeks ago, I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t keep putting off reading it indefinitely, and the idea I could take myself seriously as a writer and not to have read a single word of Hemingway’s oeuvre seemed ludicrous.

So I deliberately placed it as my next book after The Pillow Book by Sei Sh┼Źnagon (which I talked about here and enjoyed enormously) and told myself, come what may, I would read it from cover to cover.

Having now finished A Farewell to Arms, I have to say it is a rather curious affair.

Its plain prose style and strange lack of affect when discussing moments of deep import makes it seems more like a roman à clef than a true novel, and it is easy to think it is almost entirely autobiographical, as apparently have many readers.

That verisimilitude could be seen as deeply impressive, but to me it results primarily from his flat descriptions of events and often clunky and unrealistic conversations, especially those between Henry and Catherine. This makes the book comes across more as an inexperienced writer trying to capture real-life events than as one of the mostly highly regarded works of someone widely viewed as a master of their art.

It could be argued his is, however, a very ‘modern’ writing style that, given when the novel was written, was way ahead of its time, but I am not so sure.

It also interests me that Hemingway took more time over, and lavished more attention on, descriptions of the weather and the natural world, such as being submerged in water or the melting of the winter snows in spring, than on almost anything else. And it is notable his relationships with Lieutenant Rinaldi and the priest are warmer and more convincingly described than any other in the book.

Strangely, the lead character goes through what must have been extremely traumatic experiences but makes no mention of their impact, unless one draws some sort of inference from the amount of alcohol he consumes afterwards, presumably as some sort of self-medication. Moreover, characters appear in the novel, play a pivotal role in the story and then disappear, entirely to be forgotten.

And yet.

There are deeply affecting moments in A Farewell to Arms, perhaps because they are so sparingly evoked they make the reader work that much harder to imagine them.

His description of the attack that led to his injury, for example, is extremely compelling and I found myself rereading it twice, as is the moment when he is standing in line waiting doubtless to be shot; not to mention the night flight across Lake Maggiore.

And no one who has had any experience of childbirth could fail to be deeply affected by the last few chapters. Those passages were, for me, quite traumatic and they will doubtless stay with me for the rest of my life.

This is why I say A Farewell to Arms is a curious book.

In some senses, it is a clumsy, poorly executed attempt at a great World War I novel, and yet in others it recounts a fascinating, unpredictable story that reveals the impotence of individuals caught up in conflict, and what they do when faced with those circumstances. There are also a number of satisfying literary allusions, which reveals the lengths to which Hemingway went to construct and execute the plot.

Is it a great war novel? No, I don’t think so. But I do think it deserves a prominent place in the canon of American war novels, and to be read and discussed for generations to come.
Another creative force I hope will be appreciated by future audiences is Mr.B The Gentleman Rhymer.

I have written about him and his work before, and I love his very particular brand of chappishly intelligent whimsy. Normally I buy his latest works as soon as they drop, but I was a little late to getting to Quid Pro Flow, his most recent long player.

He says in the liner notes he was trying to return to a simpler, more free creative flow with this album and not get too hung up on pursuing ‘quality’. I have to say I appreciate his sentiment, but I find it is a notion that applies itself much more easily to music than it does to almost any art form (sketching aside).

Writing in particular suffers when one aims for off-the-cuff, unstructured creativity. It is a little like architecture: if you don’t put enough effort and care into the structure, the whole edifice will quickly come crashing down before your eyes.

But back to the music.

One of the things I especially like about Mr.B is his attention to detail, and ability, among the amusing asides, clever ditties and naughty jokes, to fashion moments of emotional depth that can be really quite arresting.

Would I miss them in this more improvised setting? A little. But I also found the quick-fire, choppy approach worked extremely well, and I was swept along by idea after idea, tune after tune, the whole of which fits well with my current slightly restless mentality.

Another winner from Mr.B The Gentleman Rhymer, therefore, and if the Larks and Sparks EP of Sparks covers is anything to go by, he keeps going from strength to strength.
More Life as a Dog, the follow-up to My Life as a Dog, is inching closer to publication, about which I am extremely pleased.

The cover design is complete, both for the ebook and print versions, and all the text needs is a couple more edits and it will be ready for publication at the end of next month.

As part of that process, I realised that the covers and blurb for the original My Life as a Dog could do with a tweak, and so they have been updated and disseminated as far and wide as the wings of literary endeavour will take them.

And what else? Well, a lot, as it happens. The next projects, a redo of a novel and a play, tick along at a respectable pace, and hopefully there will be some more news on the music front in the near future.

In the meantime, have a lovely weekend.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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A Curious Farewell | Pushing the Wave