"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

Scritta in prima persona e segnata dalla propria esperien-za nella prima guerra mondiale, questa storia d’amore con un forte messaggio antibellicista è uno dei migliori esempi dello stile diretto e profondo dell’autore statunitense.

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A Farewell to Arms

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Born in 1899, Ernest Hemingway was only just old enough to take part in the First World War. Turned down by the United States army due to poor eyesight, he made his way to Europe and became an ambulance driver in the Italian army, while it was engaged in fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While still a teenager, his experiences of battle and of being wounded and falling in love with a Red Cross nurse provided a rough framework for the character of Lieutenant Frederic Henry in his novel A Farewell to Arms

the lost generation 

Though the fighting had been over for a decade, it was only in the late 1920s that the first wave of important First World War memoirs in the English language began to appear. Books such as Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929) and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (1928) revealed the experience of war to be immeasurably harsh, essentially tragic and unredeemed by any greater purpose or meaning. 


A Farewell to Arms shares this understanding of conflict. Written in the first person, the novel’s protagonist Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American paramedic that, as the author himself did, is serving in the Italian army. Hemingway’s famously simple style — few metaphors, uncomplicated descriptions of landscape or interiors — was employed to describe a world where death was as common as rain. An example is the description of Henry’s near-death experience, similar to Hemingway’s own wounding, when the dugout he is sheltering in is hit by an Austrian shell:

“Then there was a flash, as when a blast furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died.” 

“[...] poi ci fu un lampo come quando uno sportello di un altoforno si spalanca, e un muggito che incominciò bianco e divenne rosso e via via nella corrente dello spostamento d’aria. Cercai di respirare ma il respiro non volle venire e mi sentii scagliato fuori di me e fuori e fuori e sempre nel vento. Andai fuori veloce, tutto me stesso, e sapevo che ero morto e che era stato un errore pensare che ero morto”.

Love in a time of war

Henry’s time at the front comprises only half of the book. His other great adventure comes when he falls in love with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse he encounters in one of the field hospitals set up to receive wounded soldiers. When the Italians are forced to retreat, Henry decides to escape the war and flee with Catherine to neutral Switzerland. Hemingway describes the arrival of love as if it has all the logical inevitability of the trajectory of a bullet

“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others.”

“Spesso un uomo desidera esser solo e anche una ragazza desidera esser sola e se si amano sono gelosi l’uno per l’altro, ma io posso dire sinceramente che per noi non è mai stato così. Ma noi non eravamo mai soli mentre eravamo insieme, soli contro gli altri”.

Reflections on mortality

The collision of love and war in the life of this young man prompts Hemingway to formulate a theory of the world that governs both of these fundamental experiences: 

“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

“Se la gente porta tanto coraggio in questo mondo, il mondo deve ucciderla per spezzarla, così naturalmente la uccide. Il mondo spezza tutti quanti e poi molti sono forti nei punti spezzati. Ma quelli che non spezza li uccide. Uccide imparzialmente i molto buoni e i molto gentili e i molto coraggiosi. Se non siete fra questi potete esser certi che ucciderà anche voi, ma non avrà una particolare premura”.

A book for all time

A Farewell to Arms shares the sense of disillusionment with war that was a feature of the 1920s. Hemingway’s prose had a lot in common with other experiments in writing style that were being undertaken at this time, at the height of the modernist period. Yet the book also contains passages that draw their power precisely from their timeless emotion: 

“We had a lovely time that summer. When I could go out, we rode in a carriage in the park. I remember the carriage, the horse going slowly and up ahead the back of the driver with his varnished high hat, and Catherine Barkley sitting beside me. If we let our hands touch, just the side of my hand touching hers, we were excited.”

“Passammo una bella estate. Quando potei uscire andammo in carrozza al parco. Ricordo la carrozza col cavallo che andava lentamente e lassù la schiena del vetturino col cilindro lucido e Catherine Barkley seduta accanto a me. Se ci sfioravamo le mani, solo che il fianco della mia mano sfiorasse la sua, ci sentivamo eccitati”.

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