Book Notes: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway

Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms is thought to be a semi-autobiographical depiction of Hemmingway‘s experience as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army during the Italian campaign of WW1, and having his heart broken by an English nurse.

This book checked off a few boxes for me:

  • an anything-but-boring Nobel Prize-winning author with a unique and controversial writing style (which he called, Iceburg Theory)
  • still in print after almost 100 years
  • perfect bedtime fiction that provides some education about real events and places in World War 1
  • it was sitting on a table of books that were “3 for $10” at the bookstore.

Adding to it’s appeal, the book was banned by the Irish Free State, and not permitted to be published in Italy until 1948: the Fascist regime considered it detrimental to the Italian Armed Forces.

His writing style delivered the experience I was hoping for. Hemmingway writes a classic while disregarding conventional sentence structure, punctuation rules, and everything else you are taught about writing.

Maybe ironically, there is an editing app called Hemmingway Editor that you can paste your writing into and it will suggest corrections to make your writing bold and clear. I probably should have used it to write this post.

In many parts, his maverick approach made for difficult reading, in other parts, it served up a powerful punch. It felt authentically narrated by a soldier – not a professional writer – but the soldier turned a few lucky phrases that stick with you. Add in gripping war tales, a beautiful nurse, and you have a winning book that stands the test of time.


On Friendship:

“Have you any money?”
“Loan me fifty lire.”
I dried my hands and took out my pocket-book from the inside of my tunic hanging on the wall. Rinaldi took the note, folded it without rising from the bed and slid it in his breeches pocket. He smiled, “I must make on Miss Barkley the impression of a man of sufficient wealth. You are my great and good friend and financial protector.”

“Go to hell,” I said.

On hedonism (and run-on sentences!):

“I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes morning and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear and sometimes a dispute about the cost. Sometimes still pleasant and fond and warm and breakfast and lunch. Sometimes all niceness gone and glad to get out on the street but always another day starting and then another night. I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now. But if you have had it you know.

(I ran this section through the Hemmingway Editor. It received the grade, “Poor”.)

When your friend, a priest, is the opposite of you, and wiser than you:

“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.”

and later:

Priest: “in my country it is understood that a man may love God. It is not a dirty joke.”
“I understand.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“You understand but you do not love God.”
“You do not love Him at all?” he asked.
“I am afraid of him in the night sometimes.”
“You should love Him.”
“I don’t love much.”
“Yes,” he said, “You do. What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”
“I don’t love.”
“You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy.”
“I’m happy. I’ve always been happy.”
“It is another thing. You cannot know about it unless you have it.”
“Well,” I said. “If I ever get it I will tell you.”

On self-sabotage (and humor) when the nurse discovers your stash of alcohol in your hospital room:

Nurse Miss Van Campen: “I suppose you can’t be blamed for not wanting to go back to the front. But I should think you would try something more intelligent than producing jaundice with alcoholism.”
“With what?”
“With alcoholism. You heard me say it.” I did not say anything. “Unless you find something else I’m afraid you will have to go back to the front when you are through with your jaundice. I don’t believe self-inflicted jaundice entitles you to a convalescent leave.”
“You don’t?”
“I do not.”
“Have you ever had jaundice, Miss Van Campen?”
“No, but I have seen a great deal of it.”
“You noticed how the patients enjoyed it?”
“I suppose it is better than the front.”
“Miss Van Campen,” I said, “did you ever know a man who disabled himself by kicking himself in the scrotum?”
Miss Van Campen ignored the actual question. She had to ignore it or leave the room. She was not ready to leave because she had disliked me for a long time and she was now cashing in.
“I have known many men to escape the front through self-inflicted wounds.”
“That wasn’t the question. I have seen self-inflicted wounds also. I asked you if you had ever known a man who had tried to disable himself by kicking himself in the scrotum. Because that is the nearest sensation to jaundice and it is a sensation I believe few women have ever experienced. That was why I asked you if you had ever had the jaundice, Miss Van Campen, because — ” Miss Van Campen left the room. Later Miss Gage came in.
“What did you say to Van Campen? She was furious.”
“We were comparing sensations. I was going to suggest that she had never experienced childbirth –“
“You’re a fool,” Gage said.

On trying to function on an empty stomach:

“It is very bad for the soldiers to be short of food. Have you ever noticed the difference it makes in the way you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “It can’t win a war but it can lose one.”

On the senselessness of war:

“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”

On the odds of dying:

“Still there would not be all this dying to go through. Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldo. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.”

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