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Author: Ernest Hemingway

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Front cover For Whom the bell TollsWritten in 1940, Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a 500+ page diary of the four days leading up to an assault on Segovia in the Spanish Civil War.  The hero of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American professor whose Communist sympathies have led him to volunteer to fight for the Republic, a revolutionary government that is fighting the fascists for control of Spain.  Written in a close third perspective, the novel follows Robert Jordan — who is alternately known as Ingles and Roberto  — as he meets up with a band of guerilla fighters hiding in the mountains ahead of the fascist lines, and lays the groundwork for a major Republican assault.  His job is relatively simple — he is a trained dynamiter that must ensure that a strategic bridge is blown up as the attack begins.

But the simple task is not easy.  When Robert Jordan meets up with the guerillas, he discovers that their leader Pablo has been ousted in favor of his mujer Pilar.  Pablo becomes a metaphorical stick of dynamite in the group, as he drinks and insults his companions, and Robert Jordan wonders whether or not it would be better to kill him before the attack begins.  His mind is further distracted from the task at hand when he meets Maria, a young woman who has survived a gang rape by the fascists that executed her parents.  Drawn instantly to her, he falls in love and enters a whirlwind relationship with her that is intensified by the dangers of the upcoming battle.  Knowing well that his chances of survival are slim, he engages Maria as his common-law wife within hours of meeting her.

In the mountains in the days before the attack, the relationships between the characters are intensified, as there is little to distract them from each other or the coming danger.  As Robert Jordan balances the needs of his mission with his own introspection and his feelings for Maria, we are treated to Hemingway’s understanding of the complexity of the emotional state of soldiers at war.  Robert Jordan fights through his fear, while also revelling in the camaraderie of strangers thrown together for a common and dangerous purpose.

I have been all my life in these hills since I have been here. Anselmo is my oldest friend.  I know him better than I know Charles, than I know Chub, than I know Guy, than I know Mike, and I know them well. Agustín, with his vile mouth, is my brother, and I never had a brother. Maria is my true love and my wife. I never had a true love. I never had a wife. She is also my sister, and I never had a sister, and my daughter, and I never will have a daughter. I hate to leave a thing that is so good. He finished tying his rope-soled shoes.

Hemingway also delves briefly at points in the novel into the mind of Anselmo, Robert’s Jordan’s guide and the viejo of the group in order to give us a sense of Robert Jordan from the outside perspective. Anselmo fights with his moral understanding that killing is wrong, even though he knows that it is necessary to protect himself and the lives of his companions.  Through the parallel views of Robert Jordan and Anselmo, we get a deeper portrait of the psychology that allows an ordinary person to destroy human life.

All that I am sorry for is the killing. But surely there will be an opportunity to atone for that because for a sin of that sort that so many bear, certainly some just relief will be devised. I would like to talk with the Inglés about it but, being young, it is possible that he might not understand. He mentioned the killing before. Or was it I that mentioned it? He must have killed much, but he shows no signs of liking it. In those who like it there is always a rottenness.

Although the novel could easily be a relentless barrage of the human cost of political upheaval, there is an enjoyable bravado that Hemingway employs in his characters that really gets the reader on their side.  Robert Jordan knows that his task is nearly impossible to survive, but he still wonders if he has a future back home in Montana, while Pilar revels in the base sexuality of the  love affair between Robert Jordan and Maria.  Agustin can’t utter a sentence without profanity (though, charmingly, these words are represented as ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscentiy’, which leads to charming phrases such as ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother’). Even Maria, whose backstory paints a truly damaged woman, shows the world her courage through her willingness to love Robert Jordan. Pablo is the closest thing to a villain that the novel has, but his true crime is only cowardice, as he allows his fear to drive him into inaction and then, later, sabotage.

He was seeing the expanding wedges of threes, silver and thundering in the sky that were coming over the far shoulder of the mountain where the first sun was striking.  He watched them come shining and beautiful in the sun. He saw the twin circles of light where the sun shone on the propellers as they came.

One of the most memorable chapters of the novel is when Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the Republican victory in her home town, so that he will understand what Pablo was before he lost his nerve.  The chapter stands out in the brutality of the Republicans, who punish the Fascists and Fascist sympathizers.  Forced to walk a gauntlet, the losers march to their deaths, while the Republican winners are equally horrified and enthusiastic about meting out revenge.  Hemingway’s moral is clear — even the idealistic Republics use the same behavior as the Fascists, making it clear that idealism doesn’t protect anyone from their own culpability in the violence of war.

Pablo is very intelligent but very brutal. He had this of the village well planned and well ordered. Listen. After the assault was successful, and the last four guards had surrendered, and he had shot them against the wall, and we had drunk coffee at the café that always opened earliest in the morning by the corner from which the early bus left, he proceeded to the organization of the plaza. Carts were piled exactly as for a capea except that the side toward the river was not enclosed. That was left open.

Although war is shown as a terrible thing, Hemingway also shows us  moments of beauty in it, both in the emotional human connections and the aesthetic appreciation of war machinery.  The battles seem quaint to the modern reader, as the guerillas learn to use their maquinas — the automatic machine guns — and escape from battle on horses.    When the sleek planes of the Fascists fly overhead, the guerillas are almost certain that they are dead. As with all war stories, the stakes are as high as is possible; through every moment of the novel, each character knows that they risk their own death.  For many of the characters, it is even worse — they risk surviving and remembering the killing that they did in the name of idealism.

His eyes, watching the planes coming, were very proud. He saw the red wing markings now and he watched their steady, stately roaring advance. This was how it could be. These were our planes. They had come, crated on ships, from the Black Sea through the Straits of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, through the Mediterranean and to here, unloaded lovingly at Alicante, assembled ably, tested and found perfect and now flown in lovely hammering precision, the V’s tight and pure as they came now high and silver in the morning sun to blast those ridges across there and blow them roaring high so that we can go through.

Mostly, Hemingway leaves us with the solid understanding that there is no escaping the war when it takes place in your country — a lesson that is all too real when we compare the death tolls of Americans and Iraqis.  At some points of the novel, the similarities are eerie between the two conflicts, which gives For Whom the Bell Tolls a particular modern relevance.  Yet, at no point do the characters of For Whom the Bell Tolls question their idealism; for whatever reason they are drawn into the war, they are committed to seeing the fighting through, no matter the human cost.  Does that echo the voices of our soldiers today?  I am not so sure.

The title is based on a John Donne poem, which I will leave you with:

No man is anIland,intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the

Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne
were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the
bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publish Date: October 21, 1940
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • ISBN: 0684803356
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: classics, fiction
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A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway


MoveableFeastWhen I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife,  a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction, which is what led me to A Moveable Feast.  He has been much discussed, not only as a writer,  but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living.  Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during  World War I, then a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Hemingway very much lived the stories of love and danger that fill his novels.

He also knew nearly all of the literary greats of his day and was himself an overnight success with the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Always wary of losing his own authentic voice by being sucked into the world of wealth that surrounded him, he frequently took dangerous writing assignments that put him into the front lines of conflict.  He loved outdoor sports and had a life-long fascination with bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting that appears again and again in his work.  But for all the dangerous and exhilarating pursuits, it was alcohol that would get him in the end, destroying his ability to write, from both a physical and mental perspective.  His last book, his memoir A Moveable Feast, is frequently cited as proof that his talent was declining.  And yet, A Moveable Feast was still a delight for me, as I fell into the enchantment of Hemingway’s distinct cadence, sharp dialogue and forthright description of the glittering literary expatriate world of Paris.

Oh, how I love the dialogue of Hemingway.  As a writer, I can’t help but admire how well he describes character through dialogue.  It is the work of a master.  When he first meets Gertrude Stein, he writes:

‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said.
‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do
both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention
at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort
and durability, and you will have the clothes money to
buy pictures.

 

”But even if I never bought any more clothing ever,’ I
said, ‘I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the
Picassos that I want.’

 

‘No. He’s out of your range. You have to buy the
people of your own age – of your own military service
group. You’ll know them. You’ll meet them around the
quarter.

There’s just no one that writes dialogue like Ernest Hemingway.  I can only sit back and admire the eloquently rhythmic exchanges, enjoying the beautiful simplicity of the language.

When Hemingway arrived in Paris,  he was a young man and an unknown in literary circles.  Thanks to an introduction by Sherwood Anderson,  who had mentored him back home,  he was able to enter the same social circles of the most famous Modernist writers.  A Movable Feast is a tell-all memoir about many of the famous people that he knew; Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald feature prominently, with chapters devoted to Hemingway’s relationship with each of them.  He gives us his impressions of them, both from his perspective as a young man and the perspective of his older self — the mature and confident writer that he became.  When Hemingway describes his first meeting of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he writes that

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty.  His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the colouring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.

It’s moments like these that make A Moveable Feast so enjoyable.  The modernists were larger than life people, so Hemingway’s memories of them are delightful for literature fans.  Although the book could run the risk of sounding like a gossip column, it is Hemingway’s devotion to writing that saves it. When he criticizes the relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is because of its affect on Fitzgerald’s work.  He writes:

He was always trying to work. Each day he would try and fail. He laid the failure to Paris, the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is and he thought always that there would be some place where he and Zelda could have a good life together again.

As a memoir, there is not much in the way of insight into Hemingway himself — but A Moveable Feast can sometimes be painful in its honesty about the other writers.  When he writes about Gertrude Stein that “she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible, although she needed to have publication and official acceptance, especially for the unbelievably long book called The Making of Americans,” I couldn’t help but wince for Stein.  Yet, having read The Making of Americans, I have to agree with his commentary.  Still, it’s painful to read such a public pronouncement of his opinion of someone he once considered a friend, and made me wonder about the cost to the author about writing so truthfully in a memoir.  A Movable Feast was published posthumously by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway a few years after his suicide.  Would Hemingway himself would have gone forth so bravely? I suspect, given the courage with which he lived his life, that he probably would have .

This concern with the writing that the modernists were producing drives the book, which provides fascinating insight into how these writers work.  We learn predominantly of Hemingway’s own routines as a young writer and hear his version of the famous lost manuscripts. He ends the book with the publication of The Sun Also Rises, telling us about his transformation from journalist to novelist and the failure of his first marriage. Given the celebrity and curiosity surrounding Hemingway as a man, it’s a must-read for any Hemingway enthusiast — and an excellent companion to The Paris Wife.

  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Publish Date: December 1964
  • Paperback: 181 pages
  • ISBN: 0099285045
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 


Genre: memoir, nonfiction
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