Have you ever met someone who didn’t have a strong opinion on Ernest Hemingway?
In my entire life, I’ve only met one person whose feelings were lukewarm. Everyone else has been either an avid supporter or full of disdain. In fact, I once read an article that blacklisted him as an author No Woman Should Ever Read, and had the following to say about his work: “the terse, repressed prose style is, in his hands, mannered and pretentious and sentimental. Manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental because it’s deluded about itself.”
I couldn’t disagree more. I’m in the camp that loves Hemingway, and while I have no illusions about the fact that he was a pretty awful human being, I think his writing, and the effect it had on contemporary literature, is important. More than that, it’s good.
So let’s talk about For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Reading this book is like listening to a piece of music in a minor key. It’s not happy, though there are moments of happiness. It’s not hopeful, though there are moments of hope. A deep current of emotion (something much more substantial than “pretentious, manly sentimentality”) runs underneath every word, and it doesn’t always surface where you expect, with significant effect. For example, the complete nonchalance with which Robert Jordan considers some truly horrific aspects of war is chilling. It makes you wonder—how much does a person have to live through to become so completely inured? And at the same time it makes you realize—that’s what war is. That’s what war does to people. If they live long enough.
One of my favorite things about Hemingway, which abounds in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is his subtlety. I know, I know. How can he be subtle when he is the number one stereotype for direct and obvious prose?
What you have to keep in mind is that what he doesn’t say is often as or more important than what he does. All joking aside, Hemingway is a master of the art that is show, don’t tell. In this particular book, he never actually mentions that the characters are speaking Spanish. But you can tell, because the grammar of their dialogue is unusual, and they use Spanish idioms that have been literally translated into English.
This book also contains some of the most beautiful use of metaphor it’s ever been my pleasure to read.
So should you read it?
If you’ve already made peace with the fact that you just can’t stand Hemingway and never will (believe me, I understand! For me, it’s Jane Austen), then skip it. This book is Hemingway through and through.
Otherwise, do yourself the favor. You won’t regret it.
In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he completed the greatest novel to emerge from "the good fight," For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan's love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo's last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving and wise.