The new edition of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms has more than 39 endings, and I'm here to tell you about them.
First published in 1929 and ranked as one of Hemingway's finest books, A Farewell to Arms is a powerful story of love and war, and a novel known for its harrowing final chapter and its stunning, memorable ending.
The variations in the new edition to be released on Tuesday are not a matter of a word or two. Some of them contain entirely different endings to the novel; others don't alter events but differ markedly in tone. Some are a sentence or two, some several pages.
As a book critic, I read dozens of books every year, and the majority of them, even those I enjoy, get 75 or 90 or 99 percent of the way through their stories and then ... fizzle out. A really terrific ending — and by that I don't necessarily mean a happy ending, but one that both surprises and satisfies — is a rare achievement in fiction.
Hemingway was an ace at endings. Think about (SPOILERS! SPOILERS!) Robert Jordan stoically facing certain death at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, or those two simultaneous gunshots in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, or that shark-mangled marlin at the end of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway knew how to finish a story. Maybe the earth wouldn't be moved, but the reader would.
Those who admire Hemingway's work now can get a look inside his creative process for writing those endings. This edition of A Farewell to Arms, from Hemingway's longtime publisher Scribner (now a division of Simon & Schuster), boasts the same handsome art deco jacket design as the first edition. It includes an illuminating introduction Hemingway wrote for the 1948 edition of the book, as well as a new and rather oblique "personal foreword" by Hemingway's only surviving son, Patrick, and a thoughtful new introduction by grandson Sean Hemingway, a curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This edition's most notable aspect is those 39 — or 41, or 47, depending on who's counting — alternative endings, as well as early drafts of other portions of the book, omitted passages, and more than 40 alternative titles.
The book includes photos of several of those manuscript pages, handwritten or typed, marked with Hemingway's cross-outs, arrows, interpolations, all in a neat, small hand. (Those pages make me wonder what scholars will pore over 70 years from now — Jennifer Egan's tweets? Jonathan Franzen's thumb drive? — and what they will reveal.)
Hemingway was a meticulous writer who reworked and revised and cut his books many, many times. Since 1979, the dozens of endings he wrote for A Farewell to Arms have been available to researchers at the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, but this is the first time they have all been published. One that Hemingway tried and abandoned after it was suggested by his frenemy F. Scott Fitzgerald has a marginal scribble: "Kiss my a--. E.H."
What comes before the ending is a novel that draws on many events in Hemingway's life. Like the book's young protagonist, Lt. Frederic Henry, Hemingway was an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I and was seriously injured by mortar fire in 1918. During his recovery, Hemingway fell in love with one of his nurses, Agnes von Kurowsky; they had a relationship, but she left him for another man. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry's relationship with his beautiful English nurse, Catherine Barkley, ends (LAST POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT!) with the stillbirth of their son and her death in childbirth.
A Farewell to Arms is high in the pantheon of war novels by American writers. Indeed, war was one of Hemingway's most frequent subjects, but it would be a mistake to think he loved it. In the 1948 introduction, he calls it "the constant, bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war." He honors soldiers ("wars are fought by the finest people that there are") but has other feelings for warmongers: "I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it."
The romance between Frederic and Catherine at the novel's core is a rejection of war in favor of life and love. A Farewell to Arms is even more love story than war story. But death finds us in love as well as on the battlefield.
In many of the alternative endings, we see Hemingway reaching for a hopeful ending to his vital, moving story. Some invoke faith; others depict Frederic after Catherine's death, waking to birdsong or dealing with funeral arrangements — going on with life. Some let the baby live.
But finally we see those attempts that lead to the real ending, heartbreaking and bleakly beautiful. This is the right ending to an extraordinary book.
… I went to the door of the room.
''You can't come in now," one of the nurses said.
"Yes I can," I said.
"You can't come in yet."
"You get out," I said. "The other one too."
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.