Wednesday, March 7, 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Source of book: I own this.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

~John Donne (Meditation XVII)


It has been a while since I read any Hemingway. And when I did, I read short stories. Believe it or not, I have never read one of his full length novels. I suppose one reason for this is that, while I like his writing, his unrelenting pessimism is difficult in large doses for me. I’m not talking about the ending of a book - not all books have to end happily. I love tragedy well enough. But Hemingway reminds me of, say, King Lear or Othello in that the bleakness is pretty unrelenting. Or like Chekhov, but without the humor.

This is not to say in any way that Hemingway is a bad writer. To the contrary, his bleakness is very well written and convincing, which is why it is difficult for me. Hemingway has a modern, spare, realistic style of writing that paints clear and detailed pictures without wasting words. He lets you in on the psychology of his characters as well as anyone, and does it by showing, not telling. His streams of consciousness are astoundingly close to real life for an introvert like me, which is why (in this particular book), the most traumatic parts were the inner dialogue of Robert Jordan’s head. I would be doing the exact same thing, and it was spooky.

I also don’t want to create the impression that I disliked For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is an excellent book, with a compelling, carefully paced and plotted story, and characters you care about. I liked the book, but it took me a while, because after 30-40 pages, I had to walk away and read something else. (With a brutal concert schedule and a 500 page book, that means slow reading…)

So, about the book itself. For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during the Spanish Civil War, in the 1930s. Hemingway wrote the book in 1939-40, and based it in part on his own experiences as a correspondent during the war.

While I had a very vague sense of the history involved, my true introduction to the Spanish Civil War was six years ago, when I read The Cypresses Believe in God, Jose Maria Gironella’s outstanding novel set on the brink of the war. Back in 2012, the book was terrifying enough. After the election of a man who is for all intents and purposes Fascist, and whose rhetoric and manipulation of the dominant religion looks much like the Falange, it seems urgently relevant. Our own society, like that of Spain in the 1930s, distrusts each other, distrusts institutions, and the Right wing seems all too eager to start a slaughter of those outside their tribe.

So, it would be too much, perhaps, to expect a book about that bloody, senseless, fratricidal, and damaging war to be anything other than unrelentingly pessimistic.

Robert Jordan is a youngish American fighting with the International Brigades, on behalf of the Republic forces. Jordan is originally from Montana, but has been teaching Spanish before he was recruited as a dynamiter. The war itself is in some ways a preview of the alliances of World War Two. On the side of the Republic are the English and Americans. But also the Russians and the Communist parties in Spain. And the Anarchists. On the other side, led by Franco, are the various right wing and Fascist parties, the Catholic Church - and the Fascist parties of Italy and Germany.

[Something to keep in mind here is that Hitler and Nazism were outliers as far as Fascist regimes went. Franco and Il Duce were more typical.]

The book opens with Jordan being led by Anselmo, an old guerrilla, to a band of rebels fighting behind Fascist lines. They are led by Pablo, who is getting increasingly erratic and unreliable as the war grinds on. Or perhaps, in reality, they are led by Pilar, Pablo’s wife - and hands down the best character in the book. She is badass. As badass as they come. And psychologically interesting as well.

Jordan’s job is to blow up a bridge right before an attack launched by Republican forces. This being Hemingway, we know it will end badly in some way or another. I won’t spoil the plot from there.

Particularly interesting in the book was the interplay of Pablo and Pilar, each of which have back stories which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Pablo has had a pretty good career in the war blowing up trains, and causing general havoc. Pilar had quite a wild youth before settling down with Pablo. Both of them hate Fascists both because of the longstanding oppression of the lower classes (to which they belong) by the powerful landowners, and because of the slaughter of civilians in their home village by Falangists. One of the most haunting scenes in the book is when Pilar tells of the revenge taken against the Falangists - the men are run off of a cliff one at a time. It is pretty brutal.

Of course, the Falangists are every bit as bad when they get the upper hand. Maria, a young woman who becomes Jordan’s lover, watched her parents get slaughtered, and is brutally gang raped, leading to her near death and near insanity before Pilar rescues her. Gironella too tells of the way that people in Spain brutally turned on each other in an orgy of violence and hate.

There were some interesting lines in the book. Hemingway explores the uncomfortable reality of bigotry - which is a problem for both sides in the conflict. But particularly for the Right, which despises both the common man the inteligenta. I found particularly interesting Jordan’s observation about how fundamentalist religion feeds bigotry and hate:

"To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy."

The first part is pretty obvious. An absolute sense of surety that one is right is indeed the calling card of both fundamentalism and bigotry of all kinds. But the second part is one that I believe is true as well. I do not think it is an accident that American Fundamentalists/Evangelicals (pretty indistinguishable these days, alas) are obsessed with sex. In my experience, believing oneself to be free of sexual impurity serves as a way to look down on everyone else. It feeds bigotry by making a person feel righteous, even as he or she does shocking evil to his or her fellow humans.

Hemingway also uses an interesting exchange between Jordan and Primitivo, a young guerrilla to make a rather apropos point about the United States - even more relevant in our present time. They are discussing the differences between society in Spain and the United States - and the relevant political questions. Why, for example, did the US maintain a republic without confiscating large estates?

Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. 'But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,' he said.
'But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,' Primitivo said.
'It is possible.'
'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.'
'Yes, we will have to fight.'
'But are there not many fascists in your country?'
'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.'

Dang. Let’s see, we have had a long (and largely successful) campaign by the ultra rich in our country to largely eliminate the estate tax, and drastically lower income taxes on the wealthy. And we have had literal Nazis marching in our streets. Hmm. Maybe Hemingway was on to something there.

Also: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.” YES. And some of us have indeed discovered who the Fascist sympathizers in our life are too - the ones still rooting for Trump as he works to ethnically cleanse our country, dismantle our public institutions, and enrich himself and his cronies. We can see who many of you are, unfortunately.

Death is a major theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls - as the title might hint. Jordan knows his time is coming. Whether sooner, or later, death will get him. In a great scene where Jordan recalls some of the Russians he worked with, he tells of an event where Karkov ends up with some dead Russians on his hands. He can’t just leave them, because the Russians are not officially involved in the war, and he doesn’t need an international incident. So the bodies are carefully disfigured in away as to look like they were killed in a fire. That way, they are just bodies.

No one could tell from the bodies of these wounded men he would leave in beds at the Palace, that they were Russians. Nothing proved a naked dead man was a Russian. Your nationality and your politics did not show when you were dead.

That last line is outstanding. Ultimately, the nuances of our politics won’t really matter when we are corpses. (Although, if you take Christ literally, our destiny after that hinges on how we cared for others - or not.)

One more example of good writing is worth quoting.

Now that his rage was gone he was excited by this storm as he was always by all storms. In a blizzard, a gale, a sudden squall, a tropical storm, or a summer thunder shower in the mountains there was an excitement that came to him from no other thing. It was like the excitement of battle except that it was clean.

One final observation. Because of when the book was written, Hemingway had to steer clear of obscenity laws. This was thirty years before Miller v. California, which overruled prior precedent and established a new standard. As of 1940, the standard applied was essentially a Victorian one: material was obscene if it tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Even as late as 1957, the court was still using a “average person, applying contemporary community standards” test for obscenity. It wasn’t until Miller that our current standard was adopted. In order to ban material as obscene, the court must find (in addition to the other requirements) “Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” If written today, For Whom the Bell Tolls would undoubtedly look different.

The most obvious difference is that Hemingway scrupulously avoids actual swear words, while making it blindingly obvious that his characters are swearing. In most cases, he just substitutes “obscenity” for whatever word he means. This is particularly amusing in cases where he uses a standard Spanish swearing formula, as in the common, “I obscenity in the milk of your ancestors!” That cracks me up every time. But, Hemingway simultaneously wrote the story the way he wanted to while thumbing his nose at the censors, who would find nothing literally offensive in the book, while pretty much every reader ever could fill in the appropriate cuss word without difficulty.

The other interesting way the book carefully skirts the censors is in its sex scenes. Yes, you could write an actual sex scene in 1940. You could mention breasts, and buttocks. But not genitals. Not directly. And you couldn’t say that they had an orgasm. Just that “the earth moved,” which has become a cultural cliche. (It was original when Hemingway used it...not so much now.) In some cases, I find the lack of graphic language to enhance the sexiness of a scene. In this case, it was more amusing because of Hemingway’s dated assumptions about gender, and the way his language is now overused. But I certainly have read worse writing about sex.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a worthy read, both for its characters and its strong writing. It isn’t the most pleasant book, but it is a good reminder of the human cost of war - and the human cost of Tribalism, which is behind the vast majority of wars big and small.


You don’t think I could leave out Metallica’s take on the phrase, do you? It is definitely in harmony with the themes of Hemingway’s novel.

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