Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (London: Arrow Books, 2004), 490pp
"Maria was very hard on his bigotry. So far she had not affected his resolution but he would much prefer not to die. He would abandon a hero's or a martyr's end gladly. He did not want to make a Thermopylae, nor be Horatius at any bridge, nor be the Dutch boy with his finger in that dyke. No. He would like to spend some time with Maria. That was the simplest expression of it. He would like to spend a long, long time with her." (pp171-2)
There are many books that have a great reputation but fail to live up to them. Classic literature in particular can often have a lofty reputation that those who slug through their weighty prose and dull and dated characters find hard to fathom. In what must seem like heresy to many book lovers, I often personally prefer the sense of achievement from having finished a book to just enjoying the act of reading it and immersing oneself in it. I anticipated a similar response when I sat down to read my first Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Thankfully, and somewhat to my surprise, it did not elicit such a limited response and touched something deeper and more joyful.
Set over three days, this nearly-500-page novel is set in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, with Robert Jordan, an American volunteer for the Republican side, being ordered to meet up with a band of guerrilla fighters behind enemy lines and blow up a bridge for military reasons that one does not need to go into here (nor does one need to have a particular interest in history to enjoy the story). But it is more than just a war novel, as it is upon linking up with the guerrilla band that he meets Maria, and the story begins a romantic arc. Both the war and romance angles are well-developed and executed; indeed, so poised is the balance between the two that, if pushed, one could not firmly place Hemingway's novel in either the war or the romance genre if it meant its unjust exclusion from the other.
It is a beautiful story expertly told; this is often called Hemingway's masterpiece and though I have not yet read any of his other work, For Whom the Bell Tolls gives the impression of an author at the peak of his craft. The pacing is superb; one might reasonably assume that, given it stretches a three-day period over nearly 500 pages, it might stumble or digress or indulge on occasion, but it does not. Though it may seem strange to label it so for a book of this type, it is something of a page-turner from page one right through to its powerful ending. The strength of that ending is largely due to the impressive characterisation. With 500 pages to work with, Hemingway adds a depth and camaraderie to all the members of Jordan's diverse guerrilla band so that when the attack on the bridge does come, one is invested in each and every one of them.
True to its title, Hemingway lends a sense of inevitable doom to the novel. The spectre of the bridge looms large throughout the guerrilla camp for the three days that precede the battle, but it is not the only episode of tension. The story of the start of the 'movement' - the civil war - as told by Pilar to Robert Jordan and Maria in Chapter 10 is of a brooding, operatic brutality that, to my mind, would not be out of place as the opening set-piece of a Sergio Leone western. And the echoes of battle which torture Primitivo's ears in Chapter 25 also wear heavily on the reader as we share his anguish. As a journalist who covered the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway is also able to provide perceptive and wry commentary on the contemptuous nature of war, mostly from Robert Jordan's inner monologue but also from others. ("I hate these pistol brandishers," one minor character states of his superior officer. "They cannot give an order without jerking a gun out. They probably pull out their pistols when they go to the toilet and order the move they will make." (pg. 329)).
It may seem churlish to propose any criticisms of the novel given my admiration for it, but some of the language of the novel seemed bizarre, to say the least, and these irregularities I found somewhat difficult to shake. All the characters speak with 'thou' and 'thee' ("Understandest thou?" one character asks), which seems far too much of a formality for a mostly-peasant band of guerrillas ("Eatest thou always onions for breakfast?" goes another casual conversation). I understand Hemingway did this as a sort of transliteration from the Spanish 'tú', and employed other archaisms to suggest to the English-speaking reader that the characters are speaking a foreign language, but for all its inventiveness it does hinder one's immersion in the dialogue. It nagged at me persistently throughout the novel, and I found it hard to shake that I was not reading the Gospel According to Ernest ('guard well thy explosive' must be one of the lost Commandments).
Furthermore, there is a lot of censoring of obscenities which borders on the absurd at times. Hemingway has a bit of fun with it ('go muck yourself' and 'we are mucked', for example) but it reaches such levels of unwieldy absurdity that at one point a character is asked, "What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity?" (pg. 32). Another guerrilla bemoans how they must "blow up an obscene bridge and then have to obscenely well obscenity ourselves off out of these mountains", before instructing Jordan to "go to the unprintable... and unprint thyself" (pg. 48). However, one does begin to become accustomed to these and some of the peculiar phrases I found rather enjoyable ('thou art rare' for when someone is acting strangely, or 'how art thou called?' instead of 'what is your name?' as two examples). Indeed, one might even have a bit of fun by replacing their own choice obscenities in place of the 'unspeakables' and 'unnameables'. But I still wouldn't drink the milk...
Overall, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fantastic novel executed perfectly by a writer at his peak. Both the war and romance arcs of the story coalesce into a single ending that satisfies both arcs. Hemingway convincingly shows how a man and woman can meet and fall in love in just a few days ("What we do not have is time. Tomorrow we must fight. To me that is nothing. But for the Maria and me it means that we must live all of our life in this time." (pg. 302)). Maria may seem rather weak and malleable to modern readers (though she has suffered much from the war and can be excused her timidity), but she is a nice tender foil for Robert Jordan's resoluteness. Similarly, the reader is never beaten over the head with an anti-war message; there are no glaringly obvious monologues about man's inhumanity to man, or clichéd political messages like 'why are we here?' shoehorned into the dialogue. Rather, Hemingway's impressive characterisation compels us to invest in the men and women of Jordan's guerrilla band as human beings, so that their loss is felt keenly, and the reader angrily condemns the war and violence that caused such losses. By painting such a rich tapestry of a civil war and allowing us to experience the loss it engenders ourselves, Hemingway creates a more powerful anti-war message than any novel that beats the reader over the head with a crude 'war is bad' cudgel ever could. When Hemingway does finally raise said cudgel ("War is a bitchery," one character cries on page 484) it is brought down with grace and is well-placed in the context of an emotionally powerful ending.
The ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls is perfect, satisfying both the war and romance arcs told within the novel. As Jordan says in something of an epiphany, "If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." (pg. 485). This revelation captures the three main aspects of the story; in essence, it summarises the theme of the novel in two succinct sentences. In Maria, Robert Jordan found the perfect expression of all the finery and beauty the world had to offer. He believed this world, with all its finery, was why he was fighting the civil war there on that damnable bridge. And finally, as he is leaving it, when the bell tolls, he hates that he could not experience more of it with her. But he won anyway because he experienced the fullness of life in those three days. It is a truly breathtaking message well-articulated and a perfect end to a perfect novel.