Review of A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.
Astoundingly bad. I read most of the first chapter, then the first paragraph of the second chapter, then discarded the book. If an author can’t prove himself minimally competent after a chapter, to hell with him. Really, a medium-length paragraph should suffice to demonstrate competence.
I shall provide some examples from this… thing. Normally I focus, not on the details of word choice, but on higher-level aspects of a novel such as plot, characterization, pacing, theme, and so forth. The details of the writing are of secondary importance (generally speaking) and are often given far too much attention in critical commentary. However: the details of word choice are a minimum condition for an author to be a good writer. If you can’t write an English sentence that doesn’t call attention to itself with its horrible, strained awkwardness, you can’t be a novelist. Not in my universe, anyway.
Alas, here is the first paragraph of the “novel” (you have to put that word in quotes when you’re talking about garbage of this appalling quality). The really bad part is the last sentence, but I have to include the entire paragraph, because if I just inflicted the last sentence on you, you might suspect that it reads better in context. Actually, it reads worse in context, as I will explain in a moment. You know you’re got a bad writer on your hands when ripping passages out of context actually improves them. Anyway, here is the first paragraph:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
God, how astoundingly bad! You have to be trying to write badly to produce sequences of words this disgusting. One should read this only through leaded glass, and with trained medical professionals standing by.
As to why the last “sentence” would be better out of context: Note that we’re told about the fucking soldiers marching three times in this paragraph. It’s not merely redundant; it’s ludicrously redundant. However, if you read the last sentence out of context, you’d only encounter the marching soldiers twice, so the redundancy would be moderated. A similar point is true of the leaves. Enough with the fucking leaves, you weirdo! What, do you have a leaf fetish or something? Or it is a dust fetish? Damn, that’s bad. I mean, how bad does your writing have to be for it to be improved by being stripped of context?
Here it is again, with some of my thought processes while reading. I can’t include all my critical thoughts because it would quadruple the length of the paragraph:
In the late summer of that year [God, just stop! What year!? Seven words in and I’m already irritated. If you’re not going to tell us the year, then why not just say, “In the late summer”?] we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun [Why the fuck are you telling me this? Also, how can a river bed be dry? Is it seasonally dry? Like there’s only water during the spring runoff from the mountains?], and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. [If the water is running swiftly, and deep enough to appear blue, it’s presumably not the dry season. If it is, we need this explained. Overall assessment: WTF?] Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. [Brace yourself; here comes the monster:] The trunks of the trees too were dusty [Yes, obviously the dust would cover whatever it touches. We get that.] and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road [You already mentioned that.] and the dust rising and leaves [Already mentioned, thanks.], stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching [FUCK! Third time you’ve mentioned them!] and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Not to be judgmental, but God, that’s bad. Wait, that is judgmental. Oh well. And I love that last “except for the leaves.” LOL. He’s pretending we need to know that “except for the leaves.” As if it has any real purpose there. Is this supposed to be profound or something? The road was bare… Except for the leaves, man. EXCEPT FOR THE LEAVES!
But if you think that’s bad, try the second sentence of the second chapter. You might want to take a shot of vodka first. Ready? Here we go:
The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wisteria vine purple on the side of the house.
Yes, that’s one sentence. Fuck, that’s bad. Now what’s wrong with it? Actually, you already know what’s wrong with it – it’s (1) incoherent garbage and (2) breathtakingly pretentious – but it’s worth dwelling on a little. A sentence is basically one complete thought. (This is a simplification that’s good enough for my purpose here.) If it meanders all over the place, it’s a bad sentence. (Unless the author knows what s/he is doing and does it with a clear reason in mind. But plainly that’s not what’s going on with this sentence.) Now as I said, I usually don’t focus on the sentence level in reading a novel, but that’s because most novelists can write good sentences. Their sentences aren’t so bad that they force you to spend time diagnosing their deficiencies. The rule of thumb is that you should not focus on individual sentences for the same reason you don’t focus on the workings of your refrigerator: Because these things are supposed to function so well that you don’t have to think about them. You only think about the workings of your refrigerator when it stops working. So it is with Hemingway and individual sentences. They call attention to themselves and force us to talk about them because they’re so very bad.
To continue: What’s wrong with that sentence is that it attempts to contain more than one thought. Hemingway rambles from military victories to a house where he lived to the fact that it had a fountain, to the color of certain flowers in the garden. These things are not connected to each other. In fact, the only thing I can think of that would excuse this writing is that the narrator is supposed to be mentally damaged, and so this incoherent stream of thoughts is deliberately incoherent. I am going to make a mental note to look this up after I finish writing this review. It would go a long way – though not all the way – to justifying this horrible writing. The reason it wouldn’t go all the way to excusing the clunkiness is that the narrator’s mental deficiencies should be established before we get too far into the novel. We shouldn’t have to wonder why the prose is so very bad; we shouldn’t have to imagine possible excuses for the author. It is the author’s job to make the situation clear with reasonable alacrity.
It needn’t be totally clear at the outset. Some hints that the narrator is not mentally normal would suffice at first. Some obviously misspelled words, or a reference to having been institutionalized, or a reference to a nurse that insisted on the narrator eating his meals on time. Something, for God’s sake, to allay our fears about the garbage we are reading. In fact, subtle hints, applied correctly, can be more interesting than an explicit revelation at the start. E.g., it might gradually unfold that the narrator used to be mentally normal, but sustained an injury in the war that has damaged his mind. That would be tragic, but would certainly help to make the point that war is bad, etc. (I’m assuming here that Hemingway actually has a point. I have nothing to go on other than the novel’s title, which suggests it may be thematically anti-war.) I find myself hoping that this is in fact what’s going on, because if it’s not, I’m hard-pressed to explain the cult of Hemingway other than as a deliberate joke by the world’s literary establishment on the rest of us.
[LATER: I’ve checked various summaries, and there’s nothing about the narrator being brain damaged. So the writing IS actually as bad as it seems at first! God!]
A good test of whether something SUX is to ask yourself this: If it came out that the whole thing was an Emperor’s New Clothes joke on the world, how would you feel about it? Would you say, “Wow, that was really subtle; I’m not ashamed that I fell for it.” Or would you say, “Damn it, I always thought that was BS; why didn’t I call it out?” (If you see something, say something!) If your answer is the second one, you have good grounds for suspicion that it is, in fact, just BS.
In the movie Housesitter there’s a scene in which a con woman improvises some BS. Later, one of her friends says, “Wow! You’re a genius. You’re like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit!” To which I respond, no, that title’s already taken; Ernest Hemingway was the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit.