A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway, New York, Scribners, 1929; The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart, Toronto, M&S, 2001
Near the end of the second sentence of the second chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms there is an error. It is not the five parallel clauses or the convoluted subordinate clauses, which are accountable to Hemingway’s famous "style". The error concerns the house Lt. Henry moves into at Gorizia, which Hemingway describes as having a wisteria vine "purple on the side of the house."
Lt. Henry moved into the house in August, several months after the spring-blooming wisteria have shed their blossoms. Wisteria occasionally bloom twice in the same year, but the later blooms are always sparse, well short of making any vine appear "purple on the side of the house". The error is egregious for a writer who made his living as much by attention to details as by anything ascribed to him by the critics, but it is hardly profound: a piece of authorial carelessness that a New York editor in the 1920s would hardly be expected to catch. But it raised the question in my mind of how fragile the believability of fiction is, and what creates believability. A Farewell to Arms, generally credited as the first great American novel to come out of the Great War, gained much of its immediate believability as a testament of the "Lost Generation" that had fought in and survived that war. It made me curious to test how well the novel has survived the passage of time since its publication, and to test it against a more contemporary novel about the Great War like Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers.
I didn’t come to rereading Hemingway without preconceptions. A Farewell to Arms had been almost the last of his work I read. I’d started with the Michigan fishing stories while I was still in my teens—not a surprising choice for a kid from the wildernesses of Western Canada, where being lost was a practical and not spiritual matter. From those stories I’d gained an appreciation of the recurring character Nick Adams, but I took more to Hemingway’s careful and ritualized approach to fishing and camping than to his notions about terse writing style, which I found kind of corny—a pretending to be simple without actually being so.
I read most of Hemingway’s other work under the influence of Norman Mailer, and given Mailer’s proprietary preoccupations—The aftermath of the Second World War; bullfighting schools in downtown New York City; manly behaviors with a more open poke-and-prod orientation than Hemingway could abide, it’s no surprise I got to A Farewell to Arms late. And when I did get to it, in 1966, it was in a first-year university English Literature class, which is a bad place to get anything straight.
On that first reading, I did not believe much of what I read in A Farewell to Arms. The war parts were acceptable—Lt. Henry’s easily set-aside pacifism made sense, as did his shooting of a cowardly sergeant during the retreat, which he’d done more out of irritation than out of a belief in military discipline. I pondered whether I’d have had the jam to jump into the Tagliamento river to avoid being shot, as Lt. Henry did, but almost everything else seemed contrived and fatuous: the self-conscious use of parallel clauses to emphasize the collapse of distinction and rank; the Cary Grant (Hallo Daahling!) dialogue between Henry and Catherine Barkley; Henry’s deliberately foreshortened perspective and decision-making; and finally, the symbolic symmetry of having Catherine Barkley die in childbirth at the end of the book.
On this reading, I understood some of these more sympathetically and mayhaps more deeply, but much of the novel still seemed too cute by a mile. Life is not so simple as to be ordered by sentence structure, and if it is going to resemble a sentence, it will read more like one of Henry James; than Hemingway’s. The Deus Ex Machina end to Ms. Barkley rings as falsely as ever, but now I have some inkling about why. Life as we know it today isn’t so much a catastrophe as a mess, and doing a walk-through as Lt. Henry does, even with the lethal obstructions he faces, doesn’t wash. We have to muddle, mess around, without the slightest hope of avoiding responsibility even if the world has ended, or is in the process of doing so.
That said, I was a little surprised at how smoothly Hemingway’s stylized prose read. From the first reading years ago I remembered how dialogue-heavy the novel was, but now I was impressed by the economy of the descriptive passages, and by the smooth segues in and out of dialogue and description. The self-consciously paralleled sentences were only a minor pain in the ass, and the Barkley/Henry dialogue, which had seemed designed to disclose as little as possible between the two of them, now was sociologically interesting rather than fatuous. The erotic coding was hiding, given the tenderness of Henry’s badly torn-up knee, some of the first blow jobs recorded in the English language novel. Moreover, a gender-partisan reading might detect the first guys-are-obtuse-dorks novel, because Henry is, in fact, a wonderfully clear illustration of how Western heterosexual males deal—then and now—with love relationships: Henry goes along with Barkley’s effusions because he wants to get laid, and then he gets, imperceptibly and without any specific recognition, caught up in it. Once he does, he plays things as they lay, embracing the same effusion of language he begins by attempting to employ for his selfish purposes. This reveals the little-recognized truth that dorks play by the rules whether or not they’ve invented or initiated the game, and that they’re surprisingly steadfast about it once they buy in.
Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers has an error similar to Hemingway’s second chapter error in its prologue, but it is characteristic rather than egregious. Hemingway knew what a blossoming wisteria looked like trellised across the side of a wall. He simply didn’t recall the time of year they’ll bloom. Urquhart, by contrast, is characteristically fuzzy about the properties of physical life. She thinks there are quintessential Canadian pine trees, and appears to believe the same of wildflowers and quite a lot of other things.
There are, for the record, eleven species of native pines growing in different parts of Canada, and several hundred species of wildflowers. Save for similarities in needle configuration, the different pines are very different kinds of trees, and the only similarity between our wildflowers is that they grow uncultivated. Equally revealing, Urquhart does not understand that the sounds pine trees make in the wind is not the result of two trees "scraping against each other in a wind-filled Canadian forest" (presumably an archetypical one) but the acoustical product of small stress fractures within the individual tree trunks that keep them from snapping in two when the winds reach a reasonable velocity. They’re called "tree squeaks", are famously hunted down by green-horn woodspersons, and in my experience it is the spruce varieties that most closely replicate the sound of heavy ropes and lanyards banging against stone and other monumental surfaces.
This sort of "quintessentializing" in The Stone Carvers—the novel is filled with similar categorizations—is actually the sound of a novelist working within the confines of a nationalist culture desperate—commercially and otherwise—to distinguish itself from other, larger same-language juggernauts. As such, some of her excesses are forgivable, but they also, almost by themselves, condemn her novel to mediocrity. Only very great writers can make the specific and the archetypical coincide. When they do it successfully—Herman Melville’s characterization of the Pequod’s first mate Starbuck in Moby Dick is the example that comes to mind—it is usually because they’ve employed an overpowering fastidiousness with the specific. Urquhart isn’t strong on specifics. Her quintessentializing often betrays a dismaying mental laziness, and the lack of research that usually goes along with mental laziness.
I could run the roll on her errors-of-indifferent-research for a very long time, but since most of the goofs she makes are relatively minor—a passage that supposes a round of firewood can be split into four symmetrical pieces with a single blow from an ax; a more or less complete indifference to which wood species are suitable for carving and what species can go through a sawmill, etc.—I’ll lay off unless it matters. Unfortunate for someone writing a book about sculpture, Urquhart is a bit of wood moron. She thinks there are two kinds of wood in Canada: "Virgin" trees, and "other", which for her is beneath mention. Virginity is apparently a preferred Canadian condition for her, and its hard not to get the impression that she likes both her characters and the forests to present that way whenever possible. When they don’t, it’s invariably cataclysmic, a kind of spiritualized falling to the horizontal with a lot of groaning and seemingly painful thrashing and snapping of limbs. By contrast, the sexual encounters in A Farewell to Arms reads as sanguine and fun-filled—which is a little depressing given what we now know of Hemingway’s tortured and prudish ideas about sex.
The Stone Carvers, which is ostensibly about the creation of the memorial commemorating the Canadian military victory at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917, is more properly an archetypalizing fantasia of the monument’s lineage than a historical dramatization of the events at Vimy Ridge and the building of its Memorial. As with most fantasias, it is more interested in celebrating the beliefs and prejudices of the current celebrants than in reconstructing history or sorting out its dynamics. The Stone Carvers, not surprisingly coming from a fashionable Canadian novelist, is a multicultural fantasia, a kind of puppet show of contemporary Canadian virtues interspersed with flourishes of slightly flushed emotional procurement. The book is a pleasant enough read, and it’s an occasionally moving one—I found myself in tears several times while I was reading it, particularly while she was describing the monument itself.
More often, unfortunately, I was irritated by the heavy emotionalizing hand of the novelist, and by the misplayed opportunities to actually show us something profound about a profound subject matter. Nothing happens in the book that doesn’t directly support Urquhart’s novelistic theme except the obsessive-compulsive obtusenesses of her leading characters trying to be deep. Even the emotionalized procurements of the characters, beautifully drawn as they sometimes are, seem excessively purposive, and there’s a scriptedness to the characters that undermines them.I’m not asking to seem them straining in the washroom or tripping over curbs, just that they be allowed a few of the laughs and pratfalls that keep the rest of us human if not always sane.
Urquhart’s strengths as a novelist are her ability to represent an eccentric delicacy of feeling within the Jane Austen/Virginia Woolf band, and her ability to write elegant if slightly lilac (as Phil Marchand has so deliciously termed it) prose. A multicultural mosaic made up entirely of self-involved obsessive-compulsives might seem a ludicrous (if unintentionally accurate) undertaking, but with an extremely generous suspension of disbelief, Urquhart does makes it work. It’s only when you begin to scan the rough edges and the mistakes that it falls apart.
My most serious criticisms are that Urquhart doesn’t know near enough about the Great War to make the book useful as history, and that she’s too careless with her details for the book to be educative in any useful way. For instance, her understanding of how the battle at Vimy was fought simply isn’t adequate: 1.) She thinks the tunnels that released troops close to the German lines were the deciding factor in the Vimy battle (they were contributory but neither unique nor decisive); 2.) She appears to believe that the "rolling barrage" was an innovation first used at Vimy (the Germans had been using it since 1915); 3.) She appears to believe that the "mines" detonated at the beginning of the battle were similar to the landmines of today when in fact they were much larger, involving underground tunnels dug underneath and far below enemy lines, packed with huge volumes of high explosive and then detonated to destroy or weaken the enemy bunkers and to kill or disorient the opposing troops at the commencement of combat. Only three of the four at set to explode at the beginning of the Vimy attack went off successfully (for obvious reasons there were very few conventional land mines used by either side during the Great War until the Germans were in full retreat late in 1918); 4.) She thinks it was the rolling barrage rather than the mine detonations that were heard across the English Channel (more numerous, larger and louder mine detonations heard across the channel had been almost a commonplace since early 1916, when seven were detonated at nearby St. Eloi). 5.) she seems unaware that a twenty day artillery bombardment preceded the attack, or that more than twenty percent of the well over one million shells fired didn’t explode, thus riddling the Vimy grounds with the unexploded ordnance that remains a hazard to this day.
Urquhart offers us almost nothing about why the attack succeeded other than that it had something to do with the "Canadian Character" and delivers even less concerning the drama of getting the Vimy monument done (as opposed to "sculpted", on which sub-element she’s rather good). Its builder, Walter Allward, appears only as a subjunct to the novel’s invented characters: a obsessive-compulsive wood-sculpturing heroine whose emotions are so scarily extreme we’re thankful she only experiences them every decade or so; her near-autistic brother who is transformed by his experiences at Vimy (first in 1917, where he loses a leg, then in 1934 working on the Memorial) from a claustrophobic wanderer/hobo to a one-legged homosexual gourmand obsessed with French cuisine; and an Italian Canadian sculptor who bears a suspicious resemblance to Urquhart’s M&S stall-mate Nino Ricci and is obsessed, in a calm, laughing Italian sort of way with carving people’s names in stone.
Allward himself is portrayed merely as a gruffly tolerant paternal eminence. We see nothing to convince us of the enormous ego and will he must have possessed to have achieved the preposterous task—pragmatic and bureaucratic—of building the Vimy Memorial. Instead, we are frog-marched in the direction of a cliché-ridden panorama of today’s multiculturalism: Italians who are warm-hearted, hard-working, talkative and all related to one another (we never find out which part of Italy they hail from), the eccentric German priest who dies as his life-long obsession with obtaining a bell for his stone church becomes a reality; some stolidly-industrious German peasant-technologists; the proto-feminist spinster; the silent-but-poetic Irish lad who abandons everything at the sight of a barnstorming aviator to die anonymously in the muddy trenches and to be memorialized as Canada’s unknown soldier by the proto-feminist; The rotund French war veteran and chef whose body is riddled with migrating shrapnel who emigrates to Montreal with the post-autism one-legged wanderer/hobo protagonist to become a gay restaurateur. Urquhart does stop short of delivering any Walkman-toting Somalian or Tamil refugees with Hepatitis-C, but by the end of the novel, her relentless attempts to provide full multicultural coverage had grown so oppressive I wouldn’t have flinched had she tried to include them in her canvas, too.
The Stone Carvers was published 82 years after A Farewell to Arms, and so inevitably lacks the authenticating power of personal testimony and remembrance. Yet it seems to me that part of that lost power could have been made up for by more extensive use of the now-enormous and fully-refined factual base that now exists concerning that catastrophe and its aftermath. In the end, Urquhart is content to settle for the idiosyncratic, fancifully following the trail a crazed Bavarian Prince (Ludwig the Mad) had on Canadian life and lying low on the infinitely more extensive effect the insanity of another German prince, Kaiser Wilhelm, (along with his costumed colleagues who sat above the opposing trenches) have had on us. It’s a novelist conceit, and her prerogative. But had her curiosity been stronger, and her attention to technical detail better, she might have written a great novel instead of yet another supplication to the bullies of contemporary culture. Beautiful prose and subtle emotions aren’t enough.
April 2, 2002 2600 words