Book Club: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’
Some Plot Spoilers!!
For Whom the Bell Tolls is the result of Ernest Hemingway’s time spent in Spain during their civil war in the 1930’s. It is a brutal look at the physical and mental struggles that impact those involved in, and affected by, war. Although it isn’t my favorite Hemingway work, I just recently finished it for real (when it had been a required reading, I spark noted that shit), and wanted to pen some thoughts I had about it.
The novel’s pace initially had me lukewarm. A timespan covered in the first 50 pages of The Sun Also Rises (which is my favorite Hemingway book) eclipses the entire length of Bell. 4 days, 3 nights, 500 pages. While his customary terse prose is still in effect, it doesn’t seem to flow as well as I thought it would. Although, with the entire scope of the book itself, it wasn’t one of the things taken into account primarily.
By far, the most interesting aspect of how the book is written is its narrative structure and use of language. For the better part of the first half, it is almost all in third person. As it continues on however, it exchanges between third person and first person inner-dialogue, mainly that of the main character, Robert Jordan. It is a technique that emphasizes the escalating mental strain endured by the ensemble Hemingway familiarizes us with. Furthermore, the language – including literary keywords like syntax, and diction! – is something that can be frustrating, and also fascinating. Obviously, the novel is told in English, with the idea that it has already been translated from the Spanish the characters are speaking. This results in Hemingway using things like false friends (ex., “molestar” does not mean “molest” it means bother, as in “me molesta” = “it bothers me” where he uses “it molests me”), direct translations (“voy” means “I go” but in reality we would use it in the continuous form, “I’m going,” but again Hemingway keeps “I go”), and grammar techniques used many times in Spanish but almost never in English (“que me digas” is a common way to say “tell me” but would literally be said as “that you tell me” which Hemingway uses). This permeates the entire novel, in no small part influenced by his immersion in key Spanish cities reporting during the war.
One thing that left me in a bit of a conundrum about his use of language was that, as a Spanish speaker, I can understand what he is trying to say in all of the instances where it doesn’t seem like sound English. Also, he many times uses Spanish, which he sometimes translates immediately after, but sometimes doesn’t. Again, I can understand the Spanish, and in that sense it doesn’t affect me one way or another, but towards the end he also uses a little French, which I don’t speak, and I realized how vexing it could possibly be to attempt to translate key things that characters may be saying. Overall, the narrative structure and language hadn’t really enhanced the book in my eyes, because of the above mentioned.
Another thing I was a little on the fence about was the character of Maria. In a way her relationship with Robert seems rushed and disingenuous. However, the relationship itself helps explain the vulnerability of her character and the fragility of so many young people left without families as a result of the war. I believed in the history of Jake and Brett from The Sun Also Rises more; he was left impotent by a war injury, leaving Brett physically unsatisfied whenever she is with him, but emotionally still very in love with him. However, the deeper nature of Maria’s story exposed through her relationship with Robert is chilling, and in the end, necessary.
However, anything talked about involving this book is secondary to the analysis of Robert Jordan. Tasked by a Russian general to blow up a bridge between Madrid and Segovia with the help of a guerilla band fighting for the Republic, Robert ends up getting involved in guerilla politics within the guerilla warfare. At one point, in an incredibly tense scene, the entire band is eating dinner inside of the cave they have taken as shelter, and Robert, thinking to himself, wonders whether he should kill the band leader, and resident drunk, Pablo. The crazy part is that everyone is expecting him to do it, including Pablo, who seems to be resigned to the fact. Why? It all seems to come back to the principle thought of war. Normal conventions of interaction are suspended because there are no rules in war.
Towards the end of the novel, Robert beings to think more and more about death. Not that it hadn’t come up before, but in a way he becomes obsessed by it, as do all the characters we meet. And in this comes a startling revelation: even before the events of the book start, Robert knows that death is the only conclusion. The fact that it is because his horse gets shot after he blows up the bridge and it collapses, breaking his leg and leaving him immobile, is secondary. At times he tricks himself into believing that he’ll survive the ordeal (mostly with Maria), but it is clear that he’s always known. And his death will be worth something because he fought for it. He makes this clear distinction when he brings up his father’s suicide and how it makes him think his father was a coward. An extremely eerie premonition for Hemingway’s own life, especially considering he sees himself in many of his leading characters.
Like I said, it’s not my favorite Hemingway. What it is, is an expose on something he fixated on his entire life, war. His straightforward dialogue and descriptions pull no punches and paint a grim reality. It’s also painful to think that it’s written from the Republic point of view, knowing full well the Fascist side ends up winning the war and ushering in Franco for decades to come. It was also both creepy and rewarding to read it while living here in Spain. He vividly describes areas that are a 5 minute walk from my flat, implanting the idea of turmoil in a place I’ve always seen as inspiring. It was a months-long journey that I certainly do not regret, and solidified my respect for Hemingway for what he is: an ultimate badass.