I just finished re-reading Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, intrigued by the new edition from Simon and Schuster that includes the thirty-nine re-writes of the ending. Would it be the same book if it were called, as it was at various stages by its author, LOVE IN WAR, PATRIOT’S PROGRESS, or the utterly banal THE ITALIAN EXPERIENCE?
Well of course, although the title now seems to fit it perfectly. What I have to add to eighty years of praise for this masterpiece of course is nothing–it swept me away as it does almost all of its readers. I certainly “understood” it better now, at the age of approaching sixty, in terms of human suffering than I did when I was closer to its protagonists in age. It is beyond elegant, beyond devastating. Despite being an English teacher and writer I have no more idea than I ever did how Hemingway gets the emotional effect he does with his stripped down, rhythmic, naturalistic prose–like the Bible or Shakespeare the effect transcends style. Was I in a true reader’s altered state with this book? Indeed I was.
The alternate endings are fascinating. Most of them just go a little further than the canonic one–Catherine dies, Frederic Henry walks out of the hospital. I’ve been there, but this scene is more THERE than life, if possible. The baby doesn’t die in all the versions, surprisingly, but the bleakness is unmitigated. Some versions include the undertaker, some the hotel.
I must say, I think Hemingway settled on the best: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”