I almost couldn’t wait to get to For Whom the Bell Tolls. “Oh boy”, I said to myself as I pulled back the front cover to sniff the ink off the opening pages, “this should be good”.
It’s Hemingway, after all – the man doesn’t waste a comma. Did you ever read the Old Man and the Sea? Maybe the best short story of all time, right? I remember reading the opening like a punch in the stomach. There’s nothing to spare – it’s just muscle, bone, and heart. If that’s what his short stories are like, then imagine what he’s like with a subject that he could really get his teeth into?
During the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan is an American fighting for the Republic against Franco’s fascists. A Soviet general has ordered him to blow up a bridge, so he’s hiding out with a band of guerrillas who can help him get the job done.
It’s a small part of a big picture that Hemingway has chosen to write about – just big enough for him to explore some really juicy themes. Death looms large through every page (as does suicide), along with the nature of our relationship with each other. Are we individuals or part of something bigger? They’re all pretty big questions for one book to be exploring. It’s no wonder he took 500 pages in getting there.
In some ways, this was the best of Hemingway’s books that I’ve read, weaving plot, themes, and characters together brilliantly (and keeping it all in his trademark style). Which is why it is such a shame that Hemingway seems to have developed a tin ear for dialogue in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
It’s full of weird approximations of translations – like using “thou” when characters are speaking formally (which is a lot). Then there’s the way he avoids swearing, sometimes writing ‘unprintable’ or ‘obscenity’ in its place, and sometimes just writing words that rhyme with it:
“Oh, muck my grandfather and muck this whole treacherous muckfaced mucking country and every mucking Spaniard in it on either side and to hell forever. Muck them to hell together, Largo, Prieto, Asensio, Miaja, Rojo, all of them. Muck every one of them to death to hell. Muck the whole treachery-ridden country. Muck their egotism and their selfishness and their selfishness and their egotism and their conceit and their treachery. Muck them to hell and always. Muck them before we die for them”
The effect is comical to my ear. Now, I get that the 40’s was a different world, and dropping the F-bomb 50 odd times in a few paragraphs would have won him few friends, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who got hold of a copy back then and read phrases like “I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness” didn’t at least chuckle a little bit. Today the effect is even worse – it reads like a rejected Monty Python sketch.
For all that I enjoyed it – even if some of it was just to appreciate a man of his time writing the great novel of his time. Sure bits of it will make you laugh now and again, but at least they don’t make you scratch your head in confusion. The themes Hemingway explored back then are as relevant as they ever were – what are the things that bind us together, and what drives us apart? In a world where our politics are fractured, it’s worth keeping Hemingway in mind as the next politician takes to the lectern…
“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.”
What do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Did you hate it?
Let me know in the comments!
When it comes to Hemingway, I’m still only recommending the Old Man and the Sea – you can catch my (very) short review of it here:
But if you’re after some Great American Novels, then here are my top 5 (still unchanged!):