2009. 150. For Whom the Bell Tolls

“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”

For Whom The Bells Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

       So, first things first.  I am not a particularly huge fan of Hemingway - see discussion below - and the reason I picked up this book was because I (mistakenly as it turns out) thought it was on the Modern Library Top 100 list.  It is not.  The Sun Also Rises is, and A Farewell to Arms is.  For Whom The Bell Tolls, not so much.  And I have to say, despite my reservations about the author, those must be pretty amazing novels, because this is quite a book.

         It is the story of Robert Jordan, a young American who has left his home in Montana and his job as a Spanish professor to go fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  It is laden with the things that make me twitch when I read Hemingway - the short sentences, the man pain, and things that might not be universal but that I found a bit tiresome - the way that much of it was written in the second person, as if Jordan’s experience was universal.  It all got a bit oppressive at times with the overwhelming masculinity of this he man soldier and his war experience, and part of me was like “I get it, Papa.  War is hell, but the soldiers and the experience of fighting are the only honorable things.”  And the language - especially the way he represented the Spanish as simple peasants with their archaic speech - often gave me a pain.  It all seemed (despite his intentions to strip the prose down to its utter truth) like artifice - stark simplicity can be as much of a parlor trick as Joycean-floridity, and I think it got in between the reader and the story to the detriment of the novel.

         BUT, despite that, I have to concede that this is a powerful novel.  There were pieces of it that (despite the Hemingway-ness of it all) just took my breath away.  The set piece where the Communists killed all the fascists in the small town was so good and powerful that I could have been watching it on film - or living it.  And Jordan himself - particularly his struggle to reconcile his past - his Civil War grandfather and his suicide father - and to figure out what kind of man he wanted to be was heartbreaking - particularly in light of the ending of the novel (and the ending of Hemingway’s own life).  The literary tricks of the novel bothered me and distanced me from the prose, yes, but, on the other hand, if they hadn’t done that I’m not sure I could have finished the story - it would have been too real and heartbreaking.  Hemingway taps into something real about war, and masculinity and life, and I have to admit that I’m glad I made the mistake about whether this was on some literary list.  And yet, despite that, I can’t say I’m raring to read the other books (though I’ll probably read at least The Sun Also Rises this year, since I just picked up a copy of that).  


Date/Place Completed:  December 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Commuting Book, Fiction 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017