Hemingway: Into the rain. Alone.

Young Hemingway with Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, the woman who broke his heart and whom he immortalized as Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms.” Source: Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Ernest Hemingway is one of my literary heroes. Has been since I read For Whom the Bell Tolls in high school. Part of the attraction may have been his machismo (something boys valued when I was a kid but which we learned to overcome when we entered the workplace: I am now “sensitive”), but part of it was just the excitement and energy his writing generated. I doubt the man would have known an adjective if he saw it. He simply declared.

His breakout novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) has been re-released by Scribner, and this edition includes all of the endings he toyed with. If you haven’t read the book, it is about a young man, Frederic Henry, who is serving in the ambulance corps in Italy during World War I. He meets and falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a British army nurse, and their relationship grows after a mortar shell wounds him and he finds himself in her ward at hospital. It is a bleak story of love amid darkness and death, and it doesn’t end happily. But apparently it took 47 tries for Hemingway to find just the right words, the right way to end it.

After Catherine dies in childbirth, Henry is devastated. He charges into the hospital room to see her one last time and orders the nurses to leave him alone.

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

With such paucity of words, Hemingway brought down the curtain on unspeakable pain and loss. That is artistry. That is why Hemingway could always blow me away.

The re-release (Scribner, July 10, 2012) carries a facsimile of its original cover – and all of the endings that Hemingway toyed with. Here are just a few:

  • Finally I slept; I must have slept because I woke. When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and saw the sun on the trees in the courtyard and for that moment it was all the way it had been…
  • In the end it is better not even to remember things but I know that.
  • That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.
  • In the end it is better not even to remember things but I know that.

There’s more in an article from last week’s The Huffington Post if you are interested. But this sampling is enough to tell me that Hemingway chose the right ending. What is telling about this is that, as a writer, he cared enough about his craft to try over and over and over again until he found just “the right words.”

Hemingway was a drinker, a womanizer, a male-chauvinist pig, and a man who was very disturbed (he, like his father, took his own life). These shortcomings frequently come out in his novels and stories. But for all that, he was unquestionably the one thing he always aspired to be, the only thing that mattered.

He was a great writer.

A Farewell to Arms – Rating 4/5

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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