In which Hemingway finds a new fan in Netty …

January 10, 2010

Things I knew about Ernest Hemingway before reading For Whom The Bell Tolls.
1. He was into guns and wars and bullfighting and fishing.
2. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his books about guns and wars and bullfighting and fishing.
3. He lived in Cuba for a while.
4. He killed himself.

Things I know about Ernest Hemingway after reading For Whom The Bell Tolls.
1. All of the above.
2. He wrote at least one amazingly, stupendously, awe-inspiring, jaw-droppingly incredible book.

Hemingway made the 2009 Reading Challenge list because I had never read him, and Andy had only read The Old Man And The Sea quite some time ago, and because I had seen Marieke Hardy rave about A Farewell To Arms on the First Tuesday Book Club a couple of years ago (Check out the video at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s2183520.htm). During the two years we’ve been doing Reading Challenge I have discovered authors whom I want to continue to read (Phillip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Patrick White) and authors whom I don’t (John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon). I am pleased to say that Hemingway definitely falls into the former category.

The great man of American letters certainly packed a lot into his 61 years until, plagued by ill health, he turned his gun on himself (and the concept of suicide is one of the threads explored in For Whom The Bell Tolls – like Hemingway himself, the novel’s protagonist Robert Jordan has a father who kills himself). Notably, he both volunteered in and reported on wars in the early 20th century, including the Spanish Civil War in 1937, in which For Whom The Bell Tolls is set (the book was first published in 1940).

Robert Jordan is an International Brigades volunteer (back in his native midwest America he teaches Spanish at university) who is despatched on a pro-Republican (of which Hemingway was a sympathiser) mission to blow up a bridge in the Spanish Sierra as part of continuing but ultimately futile action against the Fascists. He hooks up with a band of guerillas, led ostensibly by the ever-compromised Pablo, but moreso by his wife Pilar (one of the most fascinating, unwittingly pro-feminist characters I have met in my fictional explorations). Jordan spends three days, three nights and the best part of 400 pages with these mountain-dwelling reactionaries, during which he forms a bond with them, and a budding relationship with the young orphan Maria, who was raped and tortured by the Fascists after they murdered her parents and has since been taken under Pilar’s wing. The last 100 pages, which detail how the mission finally unfolds, gallop along at breathtaking speed until reaching the inevitable conclusion.

Regular followers of this blog will know that the unnecessary wastage of words is one of my prime beefs; not the case with Hemingway, who has a completely different writing style to, say, Patrick White, but the same absolute economy with words. Andy has already well covered Hemingway’s use of archaic language to indicate Spanish dialogue, and the novel way of utilising swearing (“I obscenity in the milk” indeed), so I have no need to reprise that. Suffice to conclude that Hemingway does not have his fearsomely momentous literary reputation for nothing – this is the sort of novel that would leave an aspiring writer throwing their hands in the air, packing it all in and considering a career in something where he/she is more likely to make a worthwhile contribution, say, janitorial services. The last author of Hemingway’s time and ilk that left me as impressed was F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is heady company indeed. Definitely one for the why-the-hell-did-I-wait-this-long category.

For Whom The Bell Tolls is our last book for 2009. Stand by, then, for Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2010 (now entering its third big year, but still no sign of a US cable talk show deal in sight for us … sigh), with more books and blogs coming up than ever before. So stay tuned, fellow literature lovers … Our best-of-2009 and 2010 lists coming right up …

One comment

  1. Did you also know that Hemingway killed himself on the anniversary of his own father’s suicide?

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