On Page 216 of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, A Farewell to Arms, is, in my opinion, one of the greatest descriptions of love, longing, loneliness and human endurance ever written on a single page of civilized literature. Three-quarters down the page Hemingway delivers the coup de grace of what eventually becomes a profound human tragedy during World War I:
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
Hemingway wrote the words in 1928, although he revised them numerous times until AFTA was published in 1929.
The novel is a wartime love story of Lt. Frederic Henry, an American who joined with the Italian Army to fight the Austrians and Germans in World War I, and British Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley. While a work of fiction, Hemingway draws on real-life experiences to craft the story. For instance, Barkley is based on WWI Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who treated Hemingway in Milan after he was wounded in battle.
I first read the book in college 40 years ago. Recently, AFTA was reissued after the author’s sons decided to release the book’s early drafts to the public. Hemingway rewrote major parts of the book six times. He wrote the ending 39 times and considered 25 titles for the book before settling on a perfect match.
The new release includes all 47 draft passages of Hemingway’s alternative endings. Some are one line long, others a paragraph and still others pages of rewritten work. All can be seen at the JFK Library in Boston where the Hemingway Collection is preserved. Hemingway’s original manuscript was 650 handwritten pages, and he reduced it to 284 published pages. He told friends that as much was left out of the book as went into it.
What’s truly remarkable, however is that every word in AFTA has a singular purpose. In reviewing all the drafts and rewrites, literary experts agree they wouldn’t change anything and least of all the ending: It’s stark simplicity captures the essence of pain, disappointment and lost love in one searing image. Hemingway’s instincts told him when there was nothing more to write; a story ended where it ended.
So what does this have to do with wine?
In AFTA, Lt. Henry is in charge of an Italian ambulance outfit of six drivers who remove the wounded from the front to field hospitals. They drink wine at meals, sometimes excessively, and even carry the local juice into battle in their canteens. It is as much a part of war – and coping with it – as it is in enjoying life with family and friends.
Recently, I spoke to a group of executives at the Greater Lowell Workforce Investment Board and closed with the story of a 1927 bottle of French Bordeaux that was given to me as a gift by a generous neighbor. In all likelihood, I told them, the wine peaked sometime between 1947 and 1957. The most complex wine has a life cycle just like humans, I said. The bottled juice slowly develops to its potential, sometimes over 15 to 25 years, and then gradually gives back the best of its aromatics and flavors and turns bitter. Once a bottle is opened, the wine’s adventure is over.
I told the group that I will keep the bottle for another 15 years, barring my own unfortunate demise, and open it on its 100th birthday. If it is no longer drinkable – because it has turned to vinegar – I said I will use it as a salad dressing. My point, I concluded, is that we should continue to transform ourselves and live life to the fullest because, just like aged wine, we all have a final purpose.
Wines of the week
Midnight Winery’s Full Moon Red Blend – This is a truly fun every day drinking wine. Lighter in body than most blends, it is bright red in cherry and strawberry notes, silky on the palate and finishes with a bit of oak and spice. From Paso Robles, the Syrah-Zinfandel-Merlot mouthfeel is expressive and relaxing. It’s originally priced at $19 a bottle in California but is selling for $10 at The Wine & Spirits Store on the Lowell-Tewksbury line off Route 38. Tell Steve I sent you.
Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia – Big, bold and rich in ripe blackberry fruit and gripping tannins that slide on the tongue to a velvety finish. A delicious wine from Down Under. Note the hint of chocolate. An 89-pointer for just $17.99 at New Hampshire State Liquor Stores.
Follow Jim Campanini on Twitter @suneditor.