The Ernest Nature of Bell-tolling

Disclaimer: this post is my personal interpretation of a work of literature. I accept no responsibility for anyone’s hurt feelings or offended sensibilities, especially those of fans of the author.

I’ve just read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you haven’t at least heard of this book or its author then please stop reading this post and go read a book – any book – right now. I’ll wait…

This tome was sitting on my shelf for a full five years before I deigned to tackle it, and I’m so glad I finally did. The story is that of an American academic, Robert Jordan, who is fighting with Republican guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War. His objective is to blow a strategic bridge before a major offensive so as to hamstring the Nationalists’ (read: Fascists) ability to counter it. Despite being almost 500 pages long, the narrative deals with a time span of less than a week. This fact alone should tell you most of what you need to know about Hemingway’s writing style i.e. it’s incredibly dense.

I won’t go into the plot but rather I will talk about the style and message of the novel. Hemingway’s writing is usually described as hard and clean, lacking all superfluity; I would agree that perhaps 90% of the novel adheres to this. With under a hundred pages to go, however, I found myself crying out for the end. I’d had enough of thee, thou and thy to last me a lifetime. The setting was firmly established, the characters were fully developed, the plot was ripe and yet there was narrative inertia.

Then, to my delight, it was the last forty or so pages that packed the real emotional punch; when the shit hits the fan you can feel it and smell it spattering all over you. Your heart sinks and, through the sadness, you’re just very happy you’ve kept on reading.

I’d already read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (a must for any Paris-lovers) before this. Yet if you’d asked me, half way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, would I read another of his books, it would have been a resounding ‘No’. Now with my next paycheque I’m going straight to the bookstore to pick up some more of his work.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a striking novel, as potent now as when it was first published in 1940. It casts a cold eye on the embellished horrors peculiar to civil wars, when small villages turn on themselves and vendetta-settling often takes precedence over politics. Nothing scars a country greater than civil war. With so many similar conflicts around the globe today, this novel is very necessary, as is its message.

I look forward to seeing, in the fullness of time, what rough-hewn literary gems such tragic conflicts as the ongoing Syrian Civil War might produce. I hope not to appear callous in thinking (for the purposes of this post) only of the literary output of such conflicts, but even the darkest clouds of war must have silver linings. War is, after all, the mother of invention, and this includes literary invention. Switzerland, for example, has been neutral for centuries now, and the most interesting things it has produced are a stable banking system and good chocolate. Perhaps these facts speak for themselves.

Back to Hemingway. Rarely has a novel’s title been better chosen: it is from a John Donne poem which stresses that one man killing another affects all of mankind for the worse. There is a fair amount of Albert Camus-like philosophy surrounding this novel in that it extols fighting for what one believes in, for the betterment of humanity. This is hardly surprising given that they were contemporaries and were essentially seeing the world burn around them.

Hemingway once said: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’ Camus too abhorred violence, and would have believed that a bell tolling for the death of one man might as well be doing so for the death of all men, and that you should ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’