Although I finished reading this book almost two weeks ago, I have delayed in writing a review for it because I was not sure that I could find the right words to describe it. Today, a beautiful rainy day at my home in Savannah, Georgia, brought those words to me. The most concise way in which I can describe the story this book tells is to say that it is like a series of baptisms which just won’t take and hold.
Again and again the central protagonist is soaked through by the water but again and again he is unable to find redemption and a renewal of life. Even the most powerful baptism event in the book, his triple immersion in the river, is unable to affect a true regeneration. Although the event leads to a transformation, as the protagonist sheds his military uniform and heads to Switzerland for a new life, he wonders, just after the baptism, where the priest is, indicating that even this baptism is in some sense incomplete and incapable of bringing about a total transformation. Finally, the new life he escapes to proves to be of the same sort as the old, pervaded by suffering and culminating in a meaningless death.
Hemingway has written what may be the perfect nihilist novel. In this, it is the perfect novel of World War I and the standard for all of us who, a hundred years later, still live in the wake of that world-shattering event. Perhaps, however, there is, within its perfection of nihilism, a glimmer of hope offered, a transcending of nihilism of which we catch just a glimpse. It is nihilism made beautiful.