Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Pt III

This week's selection is from A Farewell to Arms, by Theophile de Gautier. Wait, no. That's not who wrote A Farewell to Arms at all. Never mind.

John and I are talking about the first four chapters, a section in which our hero, Frederic Henry, first describes the general course of the Italian offensive against Austria during World War I and then telescopes down to a summary of his own situation. It's a strange beginning, I think, because within the first four chapters we jump forward in time twice. We start with "the late summer of that year." Then, in Chapter Two, we are on "that next year." Chapter Three then opens with the hero returning from a leave for vacation, some months later. And this is all in five pages. So what I wonder is: why bother? Why not just start with Chapter III, with the hero back from his vacation. What do we need to establish in the first and second chapter?

The second chapter sets up the priest--a character whose importance is suggested later in this teasing phrase: "He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later." When I read this I immediately wanted to reread the whole book, because somewhere in here, I know, is a description of what the priest knows. Something to do with faith, and courage, probably.

But the first chapter does nothing, really, except set the tone. Its opening paragraph is among Hemingway's most famous, epitomizing the Hemingway style. It's all simple sentences and large, non-specific nouns, and the verbs are all weak (forms of 'to be' mostly.) For many people, this is what to love in Hemingway. What I ended up liking more, though, on reading this selection was, of all things, his sense of humor. We generally don't think of Hemingway as a funny writer, but a lot of the dialogue in A Farewell to Arms--especially the exchanges between the army officers--really shines. He's very good on contrasting the formality and ritual of official positions with the pride and ego and fear of the people holding those positions--the emotion that overruns the form.

There's a scene much later in the book that shows this perfectly. Frederic has just spent twelve straight hours fleeing in a boat from Italy to Switzerland. He's exhausted and stressed and in danger of being arrested for deserting the war. When the Swiss customs officials pick him up, he tells them he's come to Switzerland to experience "winter sport." The officials know he's lying, but instead of harassing him they immediately break out into an argument about which town in Switzerland offers the best opportunities for winter sport. The entire exchange is too long to replicate, but the opening is funny enough:
"[We would like to go to] Montreux."
"It's a very nice place," the official said. "I am sure you would like it very much here at Locarno. Locarno is a very attractive place."
"We would like some place where there is winter sport."
"There is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I beg your pardon," the other official said. "I come from Montreux. There is certainly winter sport on the Montreux Oberland Railway. It would be false for you to deny that."
"I do not deny that. I simply said there is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I question that," the other official said. "I question that statement."
"I hold to that statement."

The humor here is in the contrast between the intense dignity of these men--(dignity is HUGE with Hemingway. For him, I think it's a species of courage, and there's no virute he more admires. Think of the two old men in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place.")--and the pettiness of their provicincial biases. It's not funny in a laugh-out-loud, P.G. Wodehouse sort of way, but I think the levity of these scenes give the drama--maybe the melodrama--of the other parts of the book more impact. It was a surprise to me to see the variety of tones that Hemingway is capable of using. By the later books, his voices ossifies and everything is about courage and impossible odds and doomed heroism. But here, all that is tempered; there's a restraint. It's really a great book to read; I started on the first four chapters and got halfway through the book before I put it down.