Gore Vidal, discussing Mailer's The Naked and the Dead: "[M]ost war books are inadequate. War tends to be too much for any writer, especially one whose personality is already half-obliterated by life in a democracy. Even the aristocrat Tolstoy, at a long remove in time, stretched his genius almost to a breaking point to encompass men and war and the thrust of history in a single vision. Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms did a few nice descriptions, but his book, too, is a work of ambition, in which can be seen the beginning of the careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone that since has marked both his prose and his legend as he has declined into that sort of fame which, at moments I hope are weak, Mailer [seems] to crave."
The Wikipedians apparently consider "careful, artful, immaculate idiocy of tone" to be complimentary but Vidal has really nailed EH.
Read almost 90 years after publication, Farewell is a trifle, and EH appears through luck, force of personality, or connections to have been undeservedly canonized with this work.
The plot in a nutshell: Frederic Henry is a rich kid who for unexplained reasons has joined the Italian army as an ambulance driver in WWI. (The Italians fought the Germans and Austrians in that war.) Henry drinks and banters with Italian soldiers. A shell explodes while he is eating cheese and he goes to the hospital for several months. He drinks and banters with nurses and falls in puppy love with a British (or maybe Scottish) nurse Catherine Barkley. After many pages of puppy love banter he heals and goes back to the front just in time for a major Italian retreat. To avoid the stalled vehicles on the main exit throroughfare he takes the back roads and gets his ambulance hopelessly stuck. Wandering around the countryside on foot with his company he shoots one of them (an Italian) for desertion and then in the confusion of the retreat is mistaken by the main Italian force as a deserter himself.
Frederic jumps into a river and escapes the Italians, then tears the stars off his uniform because war is no fun anymore. He finds Catherine the nurse and discovers she's pregnant. After more puppy love banter they escape to Switzerland and hole up in the mountains, where he drinks, cashes checks from home, and banters with Catherine. She has a difficult pregnancy and both she and the baby die in childbirth. The End.
"I didn't care about the characters" is a hackneyed complaint but in this book the reader truly doesn't. We don't know enough about Frederic or his history to be involved when he gets shelled or meets his dream girl. We don't know enough about Catherine to know what she sees in this shiftless playboy. But we get lots of banter:
“It’s a fine room,” Catherine said. “It’s a lovely room. We should have stayed here all the time we’ve been in Milan.”
“It’s a funny room. But it’s nice.”
“Vice is a wonderful thing,” Catherine said. “The people who go in for it seem to have good taste about it. The red plush is really fine. It’s just the thing. And the mirrors are very attractive.”
“You’re a lovely girl.”
“I don’t know how a room like this would be for waking up in the morning. But it’s really a splendid room.” I poured another glass of St. Estephe.
“I wish we could do something really sinful,” Catherine said. “Everything we do seems so innocent and simple. I can’t believe we do anything wrong.”
“You’re a grand girl.”
“I only feel hungry. I get terribly hungry.”
“You’re a fine simple girl,” I said.
“I am a simple girl. No one ever understood it except you.”
“Once when I first met you I spent an afternoon thinking how we would go to the Hotel Cavour together and how it would be.”
“That was awfully cheeky of you. This isn’t the Cavour is it?”
“No. They wouldn’t have taken us in there.”
“They’ll take us in some time. But that’s how we differ, darling. I never thought about anything.”
“Didn’t you ever at all?”
“A little,” she said.
“Oh you’re a lovely girl.”
I poured another glass of wine.
“I’m a very simple girl,” Catherine said.
“I didn’t think so at first. I thought you were a crazy girl.”
“I was a little crazy. But I wasn’t crazy in any complicated manner. I didn’t confuse you did I, darling?”
“Wine is a grand thing,” I said. “It makes you forget all the bad.”
“It’s lovely,” said Catherine. “But it’s given my father gout very badly.”
“Have you a father?”
“Yes,” said Catherine. “He has gout. You won’t ever have to meet him. Haven’t you a father?”
“No,” I said. “A step-father.”
“Will I like him?”
“You won’t have to meet him.”
Only occasionally witty, this stuff goes on for pages.