Ernest Hemingway began his second novel, A Farewell to Arms, in 1928. He says, in an introduction to a later edition, that while he was writing the first draft his second son was born, and while he was rewriting the book, his father committed suicide. He goes on to say, with his famous economy, "I was not quite thirty years old when I finished the book and the day it was published was the day the stock market crashed."
Now we have a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, the great novel of World War I. And for the first time in print, it includes all the endings to the story that that Hemingway considered — and there were a lot of them. In 1958, Hemingway told The Paris Review that he rewrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied.
The new edition also comes with an introduction by the writer's grandson, Sean Hemingway, who tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he found a whopping 47 alternative endings hidden away in his grandfather's papers. "Which pretty much bears out — depending on your definition of an ending, since some of them are fragments — his statement," he says.
Spoilers ahead if you're one of the people who have not read it yet: Arms tells the story of an American man who volunteers as an ambulance driver in Italy during the war and falls in love with a beautiful English nurse who dies, tragically, in childbirth after the couple escape to Switzerland together. The ending, famously, leaves readers in tears — but what alternatives did Hemingway consider?
"I like the live-baby ending, the ending in which you consider that the baby lives," Hemingway says. "And it's interesting that my uncle Patrick's birth was the grist for the creation of the novel, because he was born exactly at the time my grandfather was writing the book. And of course, he did live, but my grandmother had a very difficult birth."
The alternative endings help readers see Ernest Hemingway's thought processes — but they were never going to be real. Hemingway himself wrote, in a 1948 introduction to the book, that he always knew it would be tragic. "To my mind, in looking at all the different endings, the one that he did settle on is the most powerful," his grandson says.
Hemingway was famous for his spare, declarative style. Sean Hemingway says his grandfather operated on the principle of the iceberg: "for the part that shows, there's seven-eighths more underwater," he says. "In many ways, I think this example of the ending of A Farewell to Arms is really perhaps the best and the finest example of this in his writing, where you can really see all the endings and how he worked towards this final ending, which although it's really short ... you see all the emotion that he put into it, and that he left out in the end, but it's still there, sort of under the surface."
Hemingway says he first read his grandfather's book as an exchange student in Italy. And while he can't remember his initial reaction to it, he says subsequent rereadings packed a powerful punch. "It gets me every time I read it," he says. "It's that moment of realization, which doesn't hit, you're almost in shock, when a person actually dies, but when it hits you, and that's the moment he ends with, and I think it's so powerful, and it does bring me to tears when I read it."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Ernest Hemingway began his second novel "A Farewell to Arms" in 1928. He says, in an introduction to a later edition, that while he was writing the first draft, his second son was born. While he was rewriting the book, his father committed suicide. He goes on to say, with his famous economy: I was not quite thirty years old when I finished the book and the day it was published was the day the stock market crashed. Now, we have a new edition of "A Farewell to Arms," Ernest Hemingway's great novel - great love story - about the First World War. And this edition includes all the endings to the story that Hemingway considered. This time we also have an introduction from Sean Hemingway, the writer's grandson, who joins us from our studios in New York City. Welcome to the program.
SEAN HEMINGWAY: Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Sean Hemingway, how many alternate endings were there?
HEMINGWAY: Well, my grandfather famously said in an interview with George Plimpton in 1958 for the Paris Review, well, I rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times. And it's interesting that in my research at the Hemingway Library, I found among my grandfather's papers 47 alternate endings, which pretty much bears out, depending on your definition of an ending, since some of them are fragments, his statement.
WERTHEIMER: So, let's back up and summarize and maybe issue a small spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read it. This novel is the story of an American who volunteered as an ambulance driver in Italy in the First World War and fell in love with a beautiful English nurse.
HEMINGWAY: Yes, and is wounded and meets her at a hospital. As he recovers, they fall in love. They aren't married but they have a child together. And after escaping from Italy to Switzerland, she dies tragically in childbirth.
WERTHEIMER: The book is famous for leaving its readers in tears over the incredibly sad ending. In the appendices, there are several kinds of endings. Most of them are efforts to sort of refine and perfect, which for your grandfather generally meant to pare down, the ending that he did use. But there were some complete departure endings. Do you have a favorite Plan B?
HEMINGWAY: Well, I liked the live baby ending, the ending in which you consider that the baby lives. And it's interesting that my Uncle Patrick's birth was part of the grist for the creation of the novel, 'cause he was born exactly at the time my grandfather was writing the book. And, of course, he did live. But my grandmother had a very difficult birth and my uncle was born by Caesarean.
WERTHEIMER: So, you want to read us a bit of the baby survives ending?
HEMINGWAY: Sure. (Reading) I could tell about the boy. He did not seem of any importance then except his trouble. And God knows that I was better about him. Anyway, he does not belong in this story. He starts a new one. It is not fair to start a new story at the end of an old one, but that is the way it happens. There's no end except death and birth is the only beginning.
WERTHEIMER: Which is a very beautiful ending. Why do you think he didn't use that?
HEMINGWAY: I think it's interesting in looking at all of these alternate endings, you can almost see my grandfather thinking out these different scenarios. And he does write about it in the 1948 foreword about how he always thought that the book was a tragic one. So, I think from the beginning he knew that the book would have a tragic end and probably that Katherine would die.
WERTHEIMER: It does seem a little odd, doesn't it, that he wrote all those endings and then you read in the introduction: I always knew there was only one way for it to end?
HEMINGWAY: And that's, I mean, the beauty of this book. And in looking at these different endings, you know that there's one end but how is it written. And this is what he really struggled over. And, I mean, to my mind, in looking at all the different endings, the one that he did settle on is the most powerful. It's the most pared down and it's the one that really gets you.
WERTHEIMER: You know, when I was in college and high school, the first time I ever read any of your grandfather's books, I didn't like them because I didn't like the style. I didn't like that sort of spare style for which is he is so famous. But I must say that on rereading it, it is extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful and very compelling, very emotional.
HEMINGWAY: He does have a very distinctive style. And it's hard for us even to imagine today really how different it was at the time that these books were being published in the 1920s. It wasn't the typical style of the day. And I think his contribution is, especially in terms of his descriptions of war and the brutal realities of war, which he puts in this novel and as well as in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" but also in his journalism, was a real contribution to the writing on war.
WERTHEIMER: Do you remember reading "A Farewell to Arms" for the first time?
HEMINGWAY: I do. You know, I read the book for the first time when I was in college and I actually did a semester abroad in Italy. And so I brought it with me to Italy and read it while I was looking at classical antiquities and Roman antiquities.
WERTHEIMER: Did you do what everybody does - cry?
HEMINGWAY: To be honest with you, I can't, I can't - I mean, I'm sure I did - but I don't - because I've read it now recently - I'm working on this project - so many times and it gets me every time I read it. And the more I think about the ending and his choice for the moment of going back in and being with her, you know, he's there when she dies and then he goes back in. And it's that moment when you're with someone you love and you're there with a body, which he describes eloquently as a statue, you know, that you see that the person is gone. It's that moment of realization, which doesn't hit you - you're almost in shock when a person actually dies - but when it hits you. And that's the moment that he ends with and I think it's so powerful. It does bring me to tears when I read it.
WERTHEIMER: Sean Hemingway is the grandson of Ernest Hemingway, talking to us about a new edition of his grandfather's novel, "A Farewell to Arms," which includes all the ways it might have ended. Thank you.
HEMINGWAY: Thank you, Linda.
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