For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the tale of a band of communist guerrillas, led temporarily by American Robert Jordan, who have been tasked with blowing up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The writing style took some getting used to, but I ended up really liking it.
I read For Whom the Bell Tolls as part of the 12 Months of Reading Goodness challenge. July’s challenge was to read a book by Hemingway (this post is a day late – gosh, where did July go?). While he was alive, Hemingway published only seven novels, a fact which surprised me and also made the selection of this month’s read pretty easy since I had already read two of the seven. I recalled that an American character in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility also went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War and it intrigued me. What motivates someone to fight in someone else’s civil war? By choosing For Whom the Bell Tolls, I was hoping to gain further insight. (Note: Hemingway also published six short story collections and two nonfiction books while he was alive, and several more were published posthumously.)
I feel foolish critiquing classics so instead I’ll just give you some of my primary reactions to the novel.
First, I really had a tough time of it for the first several chapters. The book is heavy on dialogue. In fact, I’d estimate that about half the story is told through dialogue. Hemingway has his characters speaking in a way that simulates a direct translation of the dialect of Spanish they speak. Spanish has both a formal and informal version of the pronoun “you.” Being good communists, the band of guerrillas used the informal version of you, signifying that they were all equals. Unfortunately, thee/thou/thy is the English equivalent (thank goodness we dropped that somewhere along the way), which means the dialogue was full of gems like this, “Then after thou hast studied thy bridge we will talk tonight with El Sordo.” Eventually, I got used to it and started to enjoy the story rather than be distracted by a dialogue technique. Understandest thou?
Second, I’m still not sure why someone would, on their own, go fight in someone else’s civil war. It’s not something the US government was involved in. This was just an individual US citizen who decided to take a leave of absence from his college teaching job to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. And he wasn’t alone. By one estimate, 2800 Americans volunteered and fought on the communist side. It’s an oversimplification, but the Spanish Civil War was essentially communists versus fascists, so I imagine ideology was a big factor in noncitizens deciding to fight. Germany and Italy had recently fallen under fascist control and people wanted to help Spain avoid the same fate. In Robert Jordan’s case, he just really loved Spain and he thought it would do best in communist hands.
Hemingway had a cunning sense of humor. He really captured some of the inane arguments that crop up among people that have been in close quarters too long. Funny, funny stuff. I wish I could hear some of the dialogue professionally performed because, like when I see Shakespeare performed versus just reading him, I imagine that would further and greatly magnify the humor. Additionally, funny Mr. Hemingway self-censored the swear words because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get them through the real censors. Here’s one example of the results, “What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gipsy obscenity.” Hoo boy. I genuinely thought I had gotten a hold of a censored version until I did a little research.
A couple of additional thoughts:
War can bring out the best and worst in people. Mobs just bring out the worst in people.
Insta-love doesn’t work for me as a plot device, no matter how skilled the writer.
I started out not liking this novel and ended up enjoying it. I cared about the characters, I was pulled in by the suspense, and I was riveted by the action. The novel also made some insightful comments about the nature of conflict, relationships, power and the human conscience. Glad I read it!
Did you read a book by Hemingway in July? Tell us about it. And if you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls, I’d love to hear thy thoughts.