For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway (1940) Take 2

I am a big fan of Hemingway’s writing - the man not so much.

His ability to evoke a particular time and place is what has drawn me to his work. The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Movable Feast are all examples of immersive story telling where I can taste the cheap but drinkable wine, smell the dew covered pine needles and feel the spring Spanish sun on my face. When I travel I look for these little moments - I think this is why I enjoy reading Hemingway.

While I have been a fan of Hemingway’s writing for some time, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one that I have managed to miss until reading it for Book Club. The story is formed around Hemingway’s own experiences during the Spanish Civil War- a mostly overlooked but deeply interesting period of 20th Century history. Over a period of a few days, the novel’s protagonist Robert Jordan is tasked with the assignment of blowing up a bridge in the hope that this will prevent reprisal attacks from fascist forces. While successful, the mission itself ultimately feels insignificant as the superior military force of the fascists ultimately swept to power in Spain.

One of the novel’s strongest aspects is its willingness to dispense with a black and white portrayal of war. Participants on both sides are guilty of brutal crimes, none more viscerally depicted than a scene when an enraged mob throw their own townsfolk off a cliff to their death, due in large part to political and religious differences. It was not so long ago when conflict was written purely in terms of good and bad. Hemingway’s generation of writers broke from this in order to present us with a more nuanced depiction of war. To the detriment of all of us, it feels like the pendulum has already swung back to black and white narratives, particularly with regard to social and political commentary.

Whenever I give my thoughts on a book I always attempt to cover some of its weaker points. For Whom the Bell Tolls, like much of Hemingway’s work, suffers from his inability to write believable and moving romance. These scenes often come across as saccharine and are not in keeping with the novel’s attempt at a more realistic retelling of war.

Overall I am glad that I was asked to read For Whom the Bell Tolls as it was a book that I am ashamed to say may have passed me by. It served as the basis for a lively discussion amongst those at the Castlemaine chapter. It even prompted me onto further reading about the Spanish Civil War, which is a fascinating period of history. I can thoroughly recommend George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia if you are interested in reading more on the topic.

I think Ernest would want me to finish by saying keep reading and writing, keep eating and drinking, keep laughing and loving and keep enjoying the little moments in life. We can probably do without the bull fighting though.

Benjamin Todd (Castlemaine Chapter)