Hemingway is often criticized for romanticizing war and glamorizing it as a test of manhood. There is nothing romantic about Hemingway’s tale of an American serving in the Italian army during World War I. Except maybe said American’s relationship with a Scottish nurse.
Lt. Frederic Henry is an ambulance driver for the Italian army in the north of Italy, where fighting, as it is on the better known Western Front in France, is a brutal stalemate. Henry is popular with his native cohorts, and it is Rinaldi, an Italian driver, who introduces him to Catherine Barkley. It’s not bad. He’s liked by his fellow soldiers. He has some authority, being a lieutenant, and Catherine promises to be a nice fling to break up the monotony of an endless war.
When Henry is wounded by shell fire, however, Catherine follows him to Milan while he spends the summer recovering. There, she becomes pregnant, and the two decide that they are already married. They just need a priest to make it official. They also decide to wait until after the war. Upon his return to the front, however, Henry is caught up in a retreat when the Austrians break through. During the retreat, he kills a sergeant for desertion, but then himself is rounded up by the “battle police,” little more than commissioned vigilantes, looking to kill any officer guilty of causing Italy’s defeat. He escapes in a river and flees to Milan where he and Catherine escape to Switzerland. They live an idyllic life in Montreux, long before some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground, until Cat begins to give birth. How does it end? With Henry walking back to his hotel alone in the rain. You figure out the rest if you haven’t read it.
This is not The Sun Also Rises, a roman a clef of the Lost Generation’s trip to Spain. It does, like a lot of Hemingway’s best work, make copious use of autobiographical material. But Hemingway never saw the battles depicted, and his nurse lover, who never became pregnant by him, did not want to marry him. Hemingway is not telling his own life story. This is a man who, like so many in Europe in the 1910’s and 1920’s, was angry about World War I, seeing it as a pointless conflict designed to prop up a bunch of archaic regimes. He is particularly harsh towards Italy’s leadership and thinks little of America’s eventual entry into the war. All Frederic Henry gets out of the war is a ruined leg and a lost family.
Not very romantic at all, but then war is Zero Dark Thirty, not Hogan’s Heroes, isn’t it?