“Many of the people I wrote about,” recalled Ernest Hemingway in "A Moveable Feast" – his memoir of his time in Paris – “had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink.”
He wouldn’t start writing "A Farewell to Arms" until several years after the time referred to in this passage, but the sentiment was with him when he did.
To say the narrator of "A Farewell to Arms" – American soldier Frederic Henry – spends the novel “looking forward to a drink” might be true, but would also be a little ambiguous: looking down at a drink would be more accurate. The novel follows Frederic from the Italian front, where he falls in love with nurse Catherine Barkley, to Milan, where he convalesces after an injury. Then it's back to the front and, having deserted, to Switzerland with the now-pregnant Barkley.
It is a story of war, of fatalistic love, of tragedy. But it is also a story of how booze can provide some measure of protection from these things: a bottle of Asti uncorks proceedings, and from then on Frederic’s liver is under near-constant assault.
That assault comes from many fronts – from “wine, clear red, tannic and lovely” in the barracks, and “rusty metal” wine in the moments before he is wounded, to the cornucopia of the good stuff he imbibes throughout his recovery. His nurse accuses him of “producing jaundice with alcoholism” in order to escape the war (his empties "were mostly vermouth bottles, Marsala bottles, Capri bottles, empty Chianti flasks and a few Cognac bottles.”)
He returns to the front, and to a war where “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 bury it.”
Hemingway’s sparse prose perfectly captures those sacrifices, humming with exclusion. It forces the reader – more than the work of almost any other writer – into collaboration: what you finally take from a Hemingway novel feels like something the two of you have come up with together (over a bottle of Strega, perhaps), and the images painted by the mind’s eye have a violent vibrancy to them – the result of having to work at fleshing out the details.
So, too, with the mind’s tongue. Retreating from the front, the army in disarray, Frederic and his companions stop at a house to breakfast on wine, cheese, and apples: “I drank another cup of the red wine. It tasted very good after the cheese and apple.” Set against the privations of the war, the adjective “good” is somehow all the description necessary.
But Hemingway’s sparseness is punctuated by more dynamic forms of expression. It is perhaps a measure of how much he enjoyed a drink that it is drunkenness and love which often provoke him out of his hard-edged discipline. The verbosity of booze:
I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés 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 up 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.
And the fragmentation of love:
It rained all night. You knew it rained down that rain. Look at it. Christ, that my love were in my arms and I in my bed again … That my sweet love Catherine down might rain. Blow her again to me ... 'Good-night, Catherine,' I said out loud.
It’s a pleasing divergence: the first passage contains a sentence as swirlingly long as the café nights it describes; the second is tender in its disintegration. It’s pleasing, too, that it’s these two states which get this special treatment. After all, what changes the texture of our days, the prose of our lives, more regularly than the gratifying distractions of drink and love?
“Wine is a grand thing. It makes you forget all the bad,” Frederic says to Catherine while he is recovering in Milan. The first sentence is true, the second demonstrably false. The book ends with Catherine’s death after she has given birth to a stillborn son. Frederic farewells her body in the book’s closing passage: “…it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
Wine is a grand thing, but there is not enough of it in the world to make you forget that much bad. And, in the end, there wasn’t enough for Hemingway, either. He committed suicide in 1961.