For Whom the Bell Tolls: Andy thinks the bell tolls for… er… well not the decade obviously because that doesn’t end until the end of this year, as educated people understand, but anyway…

January 7, 2010

Big book. Good book. Important book. Big writer. Good writer. Important writer.
Sometimes a book just sort of leaves you wondering how you can “comment” effectively. Sometimes that’s because it’s so bad you just want to stab yourself in the brain (ooooh was that the flapping of a black swan??? was it? was it???) but mostly it’s because it’s so good it’s just… obscene. Hemingway’s that kind of writer. For Whom the Bell Tolls is roughly 500 pages. It covers three or four days. They are not three or four important days in the history of the world, or even the history of the Spanish Civil War. But you get to the end of those 500-odd pages and there doesn’t seem to have been a solitary word wasted.
The dialogue, that’s what got me to begin with. And still gets me. It’s something I try to do in my own writing and I fail dismally. Hemingway’s characters exchange a handful of words and the meaning that is communicated is immeasurable. Conversations occur and without any signalling, without any sort of prompt at all you as a reader know, you just fucking know what’s being said. And what’s being said isn’t what’s being spoken.
I like the way Hemingway uses archaic speech patterns to indicate the use of Spanish. I’m guessing this is a modernist literary device, the sort of thing that led to postmodern wankery. Thee and thou suggest that dialogue is being spoken in Spanish; Robert Jordan rarely (although if memory serves I think he does, occasionally) uses these patterns in his internal monologues. And my reference to postmodernism is serious, for what it’s worth. Hemingway is regarded as a modernist writer. Like many modernist writers (Fitzgerald springs to mind) he uses techniques that bring to the reader’s attention the fact that they are reading a story. Postmodernism took that a loooooooong way further. And that wasn’t always a good thing. In fact it usually wasn’t.
These dudes swear a lot but that’s masked by language as well. Although the use of “muck” for “fuck” is not exactly masking. As far as I can tell it’s Ernest saying to the censors of the time Yeah, my characters don’t swear they just use words like muck and milk instead, whatcha gunna do about that then? Although I’m convinced that “milk” is used in Spanish, somehow or other, as an expletive. Muck, on the other hand, is simply Hemingway giving a big FUCK YOU to those who would prefer not to see the word fuck in print.
Politics. Right. I’m a political kind of a dickhead and obviously the Spanish Civil War was a bit of a political hothouse so let’s talk about politics, shall we?
Um. Er.
If the book has a weakness – and I’ve only read it once, perhaps repeated readings would relieve me of this impression, although I doubt it – it’s Ernest’s total and utter lack of political engagement. Maybe that’s unfair. But if you’d asked me 10 years or so ago to give you an off-the-top-of-my-head assessment of Hemingway’s politics based on the bits and pieces of his that I’d read and what I knew about him as a person I’d have told you he was a bit of a reactionary. Although not a serious reactionary. Just a sort of “I don’t really give a fuck about that shit” sort of reactionary. Robert Jordan isn’t in Spain because he believes in the Republic, he’s in Spain because, um, he likes Spain. And Spaniards. And Franco seems like a bit of a cunt. He’s aligned himself with the communists rather than the anarchists because the communists seem stronger and he despises the lack of authoritarianism that characterises the anarchists. But prior to reading this novel (and right now too, as a matter of fact) I’d always thought that anarchism was a far more accurate reflection of the Republic and what the Spanish people wanted than “communism”, which was pretty much Stalin-funded fascism. But look. I’m biased.
I was impressed though, I must admit, with Pilar’s account of the slaughter in her village in the early days of the war. Make no mistake: if her story was presented as evidence at a war crimes trial today Pablo and possibly Pilar and a bunch of other Republican types would be stuffed. The brutality of the “good guys” is nauseating, as Pilar herself ultimately realises, and any attempt to justify the slaughter of the Fascists is unconscionable. Or at least it is today, in Preston, with an ineffectual prime minister governing an ineffectual democracy. Perhaps if I were a Spanish Republican in 1936 or 37 massacring pensioners whose politics didn’t align with mine might be excusable. I like to hope that it wouldn’t be though.
But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the book. As an exploration of the Spanish Civil War I’m not sure it’s as good as some might suggest – try Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom if the war and its politics and its tragedy are what you want to know about – but as an exploration of one man’s struggles and motivations and the interactions of a small group of decent human beings under extraordinary circumstances, quite simply as a work of literature it’s pretty damn fine. Its sparseness, its brevity (for all its 500 pages), its conciseness are exemplary. I wish I wrote like this, and I don’t. But I can read other people write like this. And that is some consolation.



  1. This is one of my favourite Hemingway books. It’s amazing how he can make waiting so tense (see his short ‘The Killers’ also), then when it all kicks off it happens so fast. Great ending too, I suspect a lot of publishers today wouldn’t go for it and push for it to be changed.

  2. Don’t think my blog does the book justice (partly because I’m now reading Carver’s short stories and I’m completely obsessed). You’re right about the tension – the chapter where Jordan shoots the lone soldier outside the cave and it all kicks up a couple of gears is amazing. And the ending is awesome – I love that he’s in exactly the same position in the last sentence as he is in the first, chest-down on the forest floor.

  3. Well here I am, finally, reading the blog … and commenting. Who would have thought?
    On reading the Spanish Civil War, I would also suggest Martha Gellhorn’s journalism. She was Hemingway’s young wife at the time and they went to cover the war together. I think he got a bit shirty that she turned out to be quite good at the writing thing, but that is their story. Unlike all the big boys who went to write about war, she decided to hang out with real people and write about what was happening to them. Very moving stuff. Would also suggest checking out Robert Capa’s photos from the war.

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