Rules become more demanding in times of trouble. There is a clearer and more unforgiving sense of good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. Ironically, however, times of trouble can also see civilised rules of behaviour torn apart.
A Farewell to Arms tells a story set in World War One. An American named Frederick Henry joins the Italian army as an ambulance driver. Caught in a chaotic retreat, he witnesses summary and arbitrary justice meted out by military policemen. Realising his own side is as lethal as the enemy, Henry deserts. The story then follows Henry through his desperate escape bid.
The writing of Henry’s story mirrors the breaking of rules in his life. As a narrator, Frederick Henry ignores all the civilised writing rules drummed into the aspiring author – repeated words, frequent adverbs, passive voice, limited vocabulary, confusing sentences, liberal use of intensifiers such as “very”, which intensify weak adjectives such as “nice”.
And yet the rules of good writing lurk, the demanding sense that these words are shaped. This “bad” writing aspires to excellence. In the famous opening paragraph, Hemingway uses repeated words like “the” to give rhythm, as in a spoken conversation. The use of “the” also serves to conduct us into Henry’s world, where mountains he describes are “the” mountains which narrator and reader both seem to be looking at, rather than any old range of hills introduced to us at the beginning of a story.
From then on every untutored line has a hidden quality. Take, for example, the following exchange:
“I went everywhere. Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Villa San Giovanni, Messina, Taormina——” “You talk like a time-table. Did you have any beautiful adventures?”
“Milano, Firenze, Roma, Napoli——”
A timetable might not seem like great writing, but there is undeniable beauty in simple place names. Place names, for example, are hugely influential in song writing, the music journalist Nick Coleman suggesting that apart from love, “pop is better on cities than anything else.”
The writing of A Farewell to Arms might have the literary quality of a timetable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t aspire to the sort of poetry informing thousands of songs.
A Farewell to Arms is a perfect combination of form and content, of what is said and how it is said. As in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, A Farewell to Arms is a remarkable writing achievement in the form of not very good writing