Friday, February 21, 2014

Thoughts on Books: A Farewell to Arms

Recently I finished reading A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. It's a classic, a novel that recounts the story of an American man who enlists in the Italian ranks during WWI. There he meets a British nurse and falls in love, leading him through conflicting adventures of life, death and longing.

For those of you who have not read Hemingway, reading this book is a great introduction to his literary style. His punchy dialogue and staccato sentence structure, seemingly void of emotion, is already fairly developed. On a cursory glance it might seem that Hemingway's style downplays the work's dramatic events and cuts out emotional ties. For me, it had the opposite effect.

I read a review of A Farewell to Arms in an edition of the New York Times from 1929 in which it contrasts Hemingway's new and modern writing style to the authors of the Victorian Era. The Victorian authors, would have written the events in flowery prose and indulgent imagery. It was an interesting comparison and it made me reflect on current trends in the entertainment industry. How do we speak in books, films and movies today compared to other time periods?

At least in the United States, today we have developed a satirical, sarcastic and irreverent way of speaking in entertainment media. Professionalism and perceived reputation stunts emotional communication. Often when people are too open about the emotional nature of a story or even current events, they are negatively branded. We just don't know how to behave when someone is emotional.

For example, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show took a long hiatus after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. When he came back on the air he opened their first return episode candidly, without the satire. In his opening monologue he choked up and fought back tears. Later he was criticized for crying on camera. This man, arguably (and ironically) one of the most influential political identities for an entire generation of young adults, showed his uncontrollable sorrow for one of America's most impactful tragedies in the past several decades and he was criticized. We simply value emotionally stoic individuals as modern role models.

Although Hemingway wrote in the rapid and blocky literary style that helped to shape modern literature, I didn't find that his writing stunted his emotional power. If anything it enhanced it. Instead of downplaying the poignant plot elements in his novel, he forced himself to show instead of tell. Rather than elaborate on wordy descriptions he let actions speak for themselves. His protagonist's numb response to the traumatic experiences he encounters brings to mind the hopeless and lost feelings that I've experienced in my own life in the face of crushing adversity.

Hemingway also touches on some major provocative themes that gained new meaning during his time period. The book's main focus is the contradictory roles of war and love in our lives. He discusses episodes of heroism from a soldier's point of view of the soldier and contrasts it with heroism from a lover's point of view. In both cases he illustrates great sacrifices and sometimes, nonsensical commands, be they from commanding officers or the heart.

The resounding sentiment is very clear. Love is war, and the stakes are just as high.

It is a provocative read and a definite classic.