The Short Version: After an American ambulance driver fighting for the Italians in World War One is wounded, he falls for an English nurse in hospital. As the war begins to take a turn for the worse, their relationship develops into something serious – and so the two struggle to support their love in the face of a bleak wartime reality.
The Review: It’s fitting that I am somewhat of two minds about this novel – because the novel is, in some ways, of two minds about itself. On the one hand, it is a depiction of the miseries and futilities of war. On the other, it is one of the more striking love stories ever told. And the two things, while they are rather tightly connected, don’t necessarily provide the same reading experience as one another, even from one page to the next. It’s not to say that one is better or worse than the other; simply that they sometimes feel like two different stories inhabiting the same narrative.
This is Hemingway’s great World War One novel, perhaps the great World War One novel – although you could argue about the respective merits of All Quiet on the Western Front or Parade’s End, certainly – but it oddly enough doesn’t seem to capture that war in the way that so many other authors captured World War Two. Perhaps it’s because the first World War was such a truly earth-shattering experience, a complete revolution in conflict, that it might not ever be something that can be put into words. Hemingway certainly tries; the middle third of the novel is thick with conflict both literal and spiritual on the Italian front. The disorganized retreat, especially once Henry is forced to shoot down one of his own men and once their group is split and begins to whittle down… the best thing these sequences do is drive home the absurdity and bleakness of wartime. The battles themselves are not terribly well-rendered – to the point that I might argue Hemingway doesn’t like violence that much – but it’s the moments of solitude or of a few men attempting to make their way that really strikes at the ridiculous concept of fighting these battles for, what, really? Henry’s capture by the Germans is a harrowing moment as well, especially as he’s faced with near-certain death.
But it’s the love story that, to me, activates Hemingway’s strongest writing. The affair between Lieutenant Henry and Nurse Barkley is one for the ages, one grounded in a reality and intimacy that frankly I didn’t expect. Perhaps the love affair is so vivid and so strong precisely because of the backdrop of the war and that therein lies the truth of the writing. The urgency with which Henry and Cat need each other is stoked by the reality that tomorrow might never come, for either of them, for any number of reasons. This thought then makes the ending of the novel even more gutting than it already is; it is Cat who is taken away from her soldier and not the other way around, and it’s not because of the war but because of something as simple (comparatively) as childbirth. Reality, the reality that powers the world through every single day, intervened and in the midst of a war that destroyed both sides like nothing come before it, nothing more extraordinary than reality tore these two apart. I challenge anyone to read the last chapter of this novel and not feel utterly heartbroken.
But as much as a novel’s ending can make or mar one’s ultimate feelings, we can’t ignore that which has come before. And I’ll admit that the beginnings of this one are some slow going. Hemingway’s prose stylings have advanced from The Sun Also Rises but he’s still a bit indiscriminate (to my eye, anyway) with the details he chooses to include or not. Everyday events transpire, whether they be supply runs or conversations or dates, and it’s hard to distinguish what exactly is supposed to ‘matter’ in all of it. Yes, we’re getting a depiction of “Tenente”‘s life on the Italian Front – but it’s oddly lacking in true weight. Even when he’s wounded, there’s some amount of distance between the author and the event – although knowing that this was another of Hemingway’s loosely-fictionalized moments taken from his own life, perhaps that makes a measure of sense.
There are moments, though. When Henry is being taken to hospital in an ambulance after being recovered, he calls out that a man above him is hemorrhaging. It’s only about a paragraph but as he experiences the discomfort of this man’s blood dripping down onto him – and then, even worse in a way, stopping… it’s a potent moment that energizes the reader, because of just how tightly wound the writing is. We get all that we need to know from just a few sentences and the impact is greater than any amount of embellishments could deliver. But the truly concise Hemingway who would win the Nobel and the Pulitzer had not yet quite arrived on the scene – his style is still developing here.
Speaking of his style, there’s a scene that totally surprised me as Henry and Cat arrive in Switzerland and are taken in by the police. In dialogue that presages the likes of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, these two policemen argue about winter sport in different towns – all while Henry and Cat are nervously waiting to make sure they get their visas stamped. I don’t know if Hemingway ever read Kafka, but a scene like this would imply that he was at the very least familiar with him; it is ridiculous bureaucracy at its very finest. It also provides a welcome dose of humor, humor that’s truly laugh-out-loud instead of the drier (and often less funny) jokes that Hemingway otherwise uses, when he does use any kind of humor at all.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The war novel interested me less than the romance-during-wartime novel, to draw out this idea that this book is two novels merged into one. It’s not to say that Hemingway’s depictions of the Italian front aren’t potent – but Henry’s courtship and partnership with Cat is some of the best writing I’ve read of Hemingway’s and perhaps even some of the best romantic writing period. The final chapter is, on its own, a thing of perfect tragic beauty and far more affecting than just about anything else in the novel. It turns out, perhaps, that war can only be so intense before you are numbed to it – but tragedies of a personal nature will always strike right to the core.