A few weeks ago, I put out a plea on my Facebook page – I had overlooked choosing a book for this year’s Banned Book Week. While emmalita sang the praises of This One Summer a book I already had on my to read list (which I did read that week), another friend gamely suggested that I read A Farewell to Arms since he was reading it as well. I checked out the audio offerings, and decided to give it a go since John Slattery narrated it and I’ve been meaning to read Hemingway this year anyway (I had For Whom the Bell Tolls already in this year’s to read list).
Friends, I did not enjoy this reading experience one single bit. Not even John Slattery’s voice could bring the characters to life on the page. It became more of a trial than anything else, and finally I just turned the speed up to be done with it and listened while doing chores around the house.
The only previous Hemingway I read was The Old Man and the Sea and I remember having the same feeling reading that book nearly twenty years ago that I do with this one: boredom. I will say right now that I am probably an outlier in this opinion, and our own bonnie wrote a review for Cannonball Read 5 giving it 3 stars and laying out the things Hemingway does well in his craft that kept her engaged. Unfortunately, those same things left me cold. Where Hemingway’s quick, short sentences which fit perfectly the topic of war, and the bursts of action captured by the style made bonnie feel connected to the setting, it instead placed artificial distance between me as the reader and Hemingway’s characters.
I have struggled for years to describe why first person present tense narration in literary fiction often fails to engage me. I think I finally found my answer in my review of A Room of One’s Own last month. I did not “hear” the voice of Hemingway’s protagonist Frederic Henry, instead I was listening to him rattle off the activities of his life (not entirely dissimilar to Sookie Stackhouse narrating her own life – I know, harsh). It almost always falls into tell not show, or at least that’s my experience with Adult fiction. YA does it better, because those authors are generally more comfortable making their narrators story tellers as opposed to fact spewers.
I also know I’m reading this 85 years too late, as the context implied for Hemingway’s contemporary readers is not as readily accessible for his modern readers. I know the general history of the Great War, but I don’t know and understand the details the way a contemporary reader would have. Even though this book largely did not work for me, I can understand why it was Hemingway’s first major success.