Book Review: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

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Take Hemingway. People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. I hate conciseness — it’s too difficult. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.
-Tom Wolfe

As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.
-Vladimir Nabokov

I’m pointing out a couple of the common insults flung at Hemingway not to say they’re false – they’re true to a point – but to illustrate what one is up against when one tries to defend Hemingway and make a case for his writing. The author has become so polarizing that American readers have basically split into two camps:

1) Those who agree that Hemingway, along with his ex-pat pals like Fitzgerald, had in the 20s, 30s, and 40s brought about a refreshing change to literature, exchanging the over-wrought and ungainly prose of turn-of-the-century America, Britain, and France (looking at you Proust, Henry James) for a modern, precise, descriptive and quietly poetic style that has carried us forward into the current era of literature.

2) Those who believe as Wolfe and Nabokov do, that Hemingway was basically a chauvinist with a conjunction fetish. Once he was six feet under the Sawtooth Mountains, in 1961, it seems this second group dominated Hemingway discussions; that is, everybody just seems to make fun of him now. Between mocking his declarative style and bemoaning his macho pursuits (“bells, balls, and bulls” as Nabokov so awesomely put it), it seems a Hemingway appreciator – or one totally new to the man’s language – has a hard mountain to climb, and may just prefer to sit it out in the end.

It hasn’t helped that these days most peoples’ exposure to Hemingway begins and ends with The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a great story, of course, and one very much worth reading, but it’s a different kind of story from his others. It’s a story of simplicity, frailty, and failure, ultimately. Without a ton of insight into the minds of teachers and school administrators, I think you might be able to say that the reason this book is picked as the intro to Hemingway in many high schools is that it’s very short. So many authors, so little time. The problem is The Old Man and the Sea is probably too…mature, I guess, for most high schoolers to really appreciate. There’s a time to mature, and a time to be immature. It’s hard to comprehend and relate to old age and impending death when you’re still in the prime of your life, and in reality have barely lived yet. You have nothing to look back on so far. So kids read their Old Man, get the talk about The Hemingway Style, and move on to The Great Gatsby or whatever, probably never giving Hemingway a second glance. I know I didn’t.

Since reading Hemingway in high school, I’ve been completely uninterested in reading anything else by him until just a couple months ago. I have taken in a number of his short stories – “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the Nick Adams fishing stories, etc., but have shied away from anything substantial by him. That was until my English Major Guilt got the better of me, and forced me to pick up a novel of his and try it on. Remember this is the same guilt that got me into that trouble with Proust a few months back, so I was reluctant. In the end I picked For Whom the Bell Tolls off the used bookstore shelf and got reading.

I’ll skip the plot summary, but instead talk about the book this way: if you want kids (er, young adults) to enjoy and appreciate Hemingway, and possibly return to his bibliography again and again instead of reading one single novella and calling it good, this is the book they should read. I mean, the novel has it all: war, violence, guns (and yes a bit of bullfighting), passionate romance, high adventure, suspense, lessons on sacrifice for your beliefs, the pure poetry of Spanish obscenities, and even a few civics lessons on communism, fascism, revolution, civil war, and World War II. Add to that an intense psychological drama, both within the main character Robert Jordan and in his interactions with the other characters, and then add to that the poetic narrative and gloriously detailed description of the Spanish countryside, and you have yourself a nearly perfect novel. I say “nearly” because yes, Ernest can get a little “and” happy here and there, and the descriptive sections can sometimes drag the narrative to a crawl, as can the interior monologues of Robert Jordan. Also, the dialogue can take some getting used to, as he “translates” Spanish dialect into English, resulting in odd phrases like “what passes with thee?” (literally que paso contigo?) instead of “what’s going on with you?” or something more Englishy. However after awhile this starts to take on a certain charm and it becomes very enjoyable to read people talking this way. No novel is perfectly written from beginning to end, but this is just about as perfect as they come.

Circling back to my original point, what teenager would not love a novel like this? Robert Jordan, a young professor in his twenties, acts as a proxy for any young person who has ever wanted to run off and do something great and important in the world. He falls in love with Maria, another young character, hurt and twisted by war, and their whirlwind romance is the type of thing one dreams about nearly constantly as a teenager.

So why does nobody read this book? Why hasn’t everyone read it by age 18? I really just don’t know. Is it the cursing? Because Hemingway, in another funny twist, censors himself as if writing a newspaper article, resulting again in odd phrases like “I obscentity in the milk of thy mother.” Pretty tame. Is it the violence? You can see and hear worse on the news. Is it the length? It is four times as long as The Old Man, and contains many more thematic elements, and god forbid a language arts teacher should be allowed to spend any more time than required with any particular author. Is it too masculine? It should be noted, that for those who might complain about Hemingway’s machismo, and the heroics of his characters, that our protagonists in this story, for all their passion and revolutionary vigor, ended up on the losing side of history. It’s no secret that the fascists won the Spanish Civil War, not the republicans and communists. Those complainers must not be actually reading his books. And just in case the feminists want to have a go at him, the strongest character in the book (and one of the most well-rounded) is almost certainly Pilar, with her penchant for swearing and her flair for command, who balances nicely with the fairly meek Maria.

I think it’s this: The Old Man‘s tale is easily broken down and digested; its morals, though well told, are fairly simple. The story here – especially when describing the horrific violence carried out by both sides, leaving no group morally superior – is not so easily defined. It doesn’t lend itself to tidy discussion and small-group exercises, which is exactly why it should be read by everyone. It is expansive and difficult, but rewarding on so many levels. I hope that if you’ve never read Hemingway before, or never read anything more than just a couple short stories, that you’ll give this book a try.

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