I’ve always hesitated reading Hemingway. Much like my troubled relationship with Luchino Visconti, the excessiveness of ‘Papa’ tended to rub me the wrong way. Though this never stopped me from reading one of America’s best expat writers . Visiting Hemingway’s boyhood home and museum in Chicago, I came across a first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls for $5. After quickly snatching up the novel, I decided to once again challenge my opinion of Hemingway.
For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American teacher turned soldier during the Spanish Civl War. Assigned to blow up a Fascist controlled bridge, Jordan and a group of Republican guerilla fighters prepare themselves for a virtual suicide mission. Considered an outsider at first, the American eventually wins over the Spanish revolutionaries with his passion to save the Republic.
That is, everyone except Pablo. As the head of the vigilante group, Pablo distrusts the suicide mission Jordan thrust upon them. Having seen the true brutality of the Fascist agitators, the weary fighter fears less of being killed and more of being captured. Seeing that he is alone in his opposition to the mission, including by his boisterous wife Pilar, Pablo decides to take matters into his own hands.
Though some members of the guerilla group like Jordan more than just a comrade. Maria, a survivor from the recent Fascist purge of her city, falls for the American. A love blossoms between the two that cast doubt over Jordan’s commitment to the mission. Does a mission, destined for almost certain death, override love? Hemingway repeatedly poses the questions in desperate terms:
“Because now he was not there. He was walking beside her but his mind was thinking of the problem of the bridge now and it was all clear and hard and sharp as when a camera lens is brought in focus. He saw the two post and Anselmo and the gypsy watching. He saw the road empty and he saw movement on it. He saw where he would place the two automatic rifles to get the most level field of fire, and who will serve them, he thought, me at the end, but who at the start? He placed the charges, wedged and lashed them, sunk his caps and crimped them, ran his wires, hooked them up and got back to where he had placed the old box of the exploder and then he started to think of all the things that could have happened and that might go wrong. Stop it, he told himself. You have made love to this girl and now your head is clear, properly clear, and you start to worry. Don’t worry. You mustn’t worry. You know the things that you may have to do and you know what may happen. Certainly it may happen.”
Hemingway chooses to oscillate between internal struggle and multiple character perspectives to imagine his novel. For the most part, aside from the tendency to let his passion for description get the better of him, the device works. What first sticks out as a sore thumb ends up being the voice we crave the most:
Then they were together so that as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now, they knew that nothing could ever happen to the one that did not happen to the other, that no other thing could happen more than this; that this was all and always this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now , now , the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now, and where are you and where am I and where is the other one, and not why, not ever why, only this now; and on and always please then always now, always now, for now always one now; one only one, there is no other one but one now, one, going now, rising now, sailing now, leaving now, wheeling now, soaring now, away now, all the way now, all of all the way now; one and one is one, is one, is one, is one, is still one, is still one, is one descendingly, is one softly, is one longingly, is one kindly, is one happily, is one in goodness, is one to cherish, is one now on earth with elbows against the cut and slept-on branches of the pine tree with the smell of the pine boughs and the night to earth conclusively now, and with the morning of the day to come. Then he said, for the other was only in his head and he had said nothing, “Oh, Maria, I love thee and I thank thee for this.”
Another off-putting, but acquired taste in For Whom the Bell Tolls is the language. Edmund Wilson points out in his review 1940 from The New Republic, “Since the dialogue of the characters speaking Spanish is rendeered literally with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and all the formalities of a Latin language, the scenes have a strange atmosphere of literary Medievalism.” While Wilson makes a good argument, the antiquated voice really comes down to preference. Much like Papa’s passionate prose, whatever hesitation we first have becomes a welcome characteristic of the novel.
While it’s unclear if Hemingway actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, he certainly understood the emotional struggle of it. There were at least five parties in the Spanish Civil War on the Republic side. I tried to understand and evaluate each(very difficult) and belonged to none…I had no party but a deep interest and love for the Republic.” And he certainly did, but not without an equal critique of it. The most prime example of this comes in Pilar’s retelling of the execution of Fascists in her village. While Hemingway claimed he fabricated the story, they are actually taken from the violent events of Ronda in 1936.
“Don Guillermo waved his hand again toward the noise and walked into the lines with his head up and you would not have known what he was feeling except for the color of his face. Then some drunkard yelled, ‘Guillermo!’ from the lines, imitating the high cracked voice of his wife and Don Guillermo rushed toward the man, blindly, with tears now running down his cheeks and the man hit him hard across the face with his flail and Don Guillermo sat down from the force of the blow and sat there crying, but not from fear, while the drunkards beat him and one drunkard jumped on top of him, astride his shoulders, and beat him with a bottle. After this many of the men left the lines and their places were taken by the drunkards who had been jeering and saying things in bad taste through the windows of the Ayuntamiento. When the square had been closed off and the lines formed, I had admired and understood it as a conception of Pablo, although it seemed to me to be somewhat fantastic and that it would be necessary for all that was to be done to be done in good taste if it were not to be repugnant. Certainly if the Fascists were to be executed by the people, it was better for all the people to have a part in it, and I wished to share the guilt as much as any, just as I hoped to share in the benefits when the town should be ours. But after Don Guillermo I felt a feeling of shame and distaste, and with the coming of the drunkards and the worthless ones into the lines , and the abstention of those who left the lines as a protest after Don Guillermo, I wished that I might disassociate myself altogether from the lines, and I walked away, across the square, and sat down on a bench under one of the big trees that gave shade there. “
For Whom the Bell Tolls certainly has Communist sympathies, so many in fact the U.S. postal service decided the novel was ‘un-mailable’ in 1940. Though these way-left leaning views didn’t stop Barack Obama and John McCain for citing Robert Jordan as a hero in the 2008 election. I’m sure now both would vehemently disown any connection due to the mainstream misconception of Socialism. But they shouldn’t. Hemingway’s novel is a sprawling epic that is much a product of it’s own time as it is ours. Each character is unique and memorable. We don’t see the young author who drunkenly followed wine and women in Spain, but rather an author who’s passion resonates with us. So From Whom the Bell Tolls may not be the Ernest of old, but it has Hemingway written all over it.