Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Love and War and Rules for Writing

Italian Alpini in 1915
There is a road that I drive along many many times during the winter. A low flat bridge over water weaving around islands of rocks, stunted trees, the frayed shoreline and blue shoals glittering with the cold force of the mountains to the north. It is the Piave River, just down from Vittorio Veneto. At the end of 1918 (24th October-3rd November to be precise) this is where the Italians finally defeated what remained of the dishevelled, underfed and disunited Austro-Hungarian forces in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. This was the last conflict of the eleven Isonzo battles, a three-year stretch of bitter advances and retreats fought high in the Eastern Alps of northern Italy and on the vast Piave river plain. A few years back I translated dozens of information signs for alpine hiking trails over the old battle sites of the Great War. It was almost too much for this ignorant writer. Example: the forgotten and heartbreaking Battle of Ortigara, where 23 000 Italians and 9 000 Austrians died or were wounded in a fifteen-day advance and subsequent retreat! These were fierce, merciless battles where for the first time fortresses were blown to bits by Howitzer blasts, where gas was introduced, where barbed wire laced mountain tracks and tunnels were dug in the mountain bed and encampments blown to the stars. There are roads I cannot drive down because I still hear the cannons with their 22km firing range whistling across the valleys towards young men tormented by hunger, cold and dysentery, who just wanted to go home.

Reader, I have sons!

Hemingway in Milan 1918
On July 8th 1918, an eighteen-year-old American Red Cross volunteer was handing out chocolate and cigarettes to Italian troops on the front line. An Austro-Hungarian mortar knocked him unconscious and killed one of the Italian soldiers, blowing off the legs of another. When the young American awoke he was buried in the dugout and had shrapnel embedded in his thighs, groin, hands, scalp and feet. Somehow, though he would not remember afterwards, he dragged a third wounded Italian soldier to safety. (For his bravery he was awarded the Croce della Guerra). Severely injured, he was operated on immediately then transferred to the Red Cross Hospital in Milan where he spent three months recuperating before returning to the front. In hospital the young man fell in love with an American nurse seven years his senior. It was the young man's first love and he loved hard and deep. The two planned to marry upon their return to the United States. But there were arguments, a time lag; the nurse remained in Italy and fell for an Italian captain. She wrote a letter of adieu to the young devastated man. It was said that this act of abandonment established a behaviour pattern that would be repeated over and over throughout the man's life: he would always leave his lovers before they had the chance to abandon him.

This young man was Ernest Hemingway.

Before Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms established his reputation as a groundbreaking modern American writer and showed his scathing opinion of war, he wrote this touching short story. It's a small, minor story with a sense of love and war, and an early display of the rules of writing that Hemingway would build into a lasting school of thought.

A Very Short Story

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night.

Luz stayed on night duty for three nights. They were glad to let her. When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema. He went under the anaesthetic holding tight on to himself so he would not blab about anything during the silly, talky time. After he got on crutches he used to take the temperatures so Luz would not have to get up from the bed. There were only a few patients, and they all knew about it. They all liked Luz. As he walked back along the halls he thought of Luz in his bed.

Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.

Luz wrote him many letters that he never got until after the Armistice. Fifteen came in a bunch to the front and he sorted them by the dates and read them all straight through. They were all about the hospital, and how much she loved him and how it was impossible to get along without him and how terrible it was missing him at night.

After the armistice they agreed he should go home to get a job so they might be married. Luz would not come home until he had a good job and could come to New York to meet her. It was understood he would not drink, and he did not want to see his friends or anyone in the States. Only to get a job and be married. On the train from Padua to Milan they quarreled about her not being willing to come home at once. When they had to say good-bye, in the station at Milan, they kissed good-bye, but were not finished with the quarrel. He felt sick about saying good-bye like that.

He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordonone to open a hospital. It was lonely and rainy there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never known Italians before, and finally wrote to the States that theirs had only been a boy and girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to understand, but might some day forgive her, and be grateful to her, and she expected, absolutely unexpectedly, to be married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realized now it was only a boy and girl love. She hoped he would have a great career, and believed in him absolutely. She knew it was for the best.

The major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time. Luz never got an answer to the letter to Chicago about it. A short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.

Though this young rejected man went on to become a great and tormented writer, obedient to his craft but also to his passions, his women, his hunting, his alcoholic suffering, it could be said that - to the end - he stuck to the writing rules he learned as a cub reporter:

Use short sentences. 
Use short first paragraphs. 
Use vigorous English. 
Be positive, not negative.

There seem to be several lessons in all of this.

**worth reading: from The New York Times Archives (1940) 'Ernest Hemingway Talks of Work and War'