Wednesday, 22 July 2009

For whom the bell toils...

So, here we are - the first 'review'. It took longer than expected to plough through Hemingway's first entry on the list, but I've caught up some time with The Maltese Falcon and, currently, Treasure Island. Falcon review to follow soon. Here we go, and feel free to have your say at the bottom:

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

What’s it all about, Quirky?

In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a young American volunteer, Robert Jordan, a man with an uncanny ability to blow the hell out of bridges, is sent high into the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra. His mission, to dynamite an important strategic bridge. Guided by an old man, Anselmo, to the guerrillas’ hideout, he has a few days to win the approval of the men, kill their leader, Pablo, before Pablo kills him, and fall in love with Maria, a beautiful girl haunted by her rape at the hands of Franco’s rebels, all the while avoiding capture and planning the blowing of the bridge.

This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?

No. An ‘important’ book, perhaps, but it sure isn’t pleasant. There are weighty issues here – death, freedom, independence, loss of innocence – and Hemingway didn’t hold back. The story is shrouded with a sense of impending doom, albeit one with a little hope and love trying to break through the darkness. When he got going, Hemingway created some powerful scenes. The account of Pablo’s gang taking a town by brutally massacring every single fascist, some shot by firing squad, some beaten to death, others chucked off a cliff, is almost, in itself, worth the reading of the entire 490 pages.

Perhaps the book’s biggest strength is the depth of its characters. Jordan isn’t the kind of protagonist you can instantly relate to, but he seeps into your subconscious as the story unfolds, much in the same way as Pilar, Pablo’s wife, does. Pilar is a vicious, foul-mouthed bitch at times, but she’s also proves to be a staunch ally to Jordan. Pablo is delicious – you want Jordan, hell, anyone, to take him out early on. But he proves somewhat difficult to dispatch, as does the book from one’s mind.

On my signal, unleash hell:

For Whom the Bell Tolls is hard going. Make no mistake. And the reason it’s hard going is down to Hemingway. There are too many issues with his style of writing that kept pulling me out of the story, such as his insistence in spelling out Robert Jordan’s full name on each and every time he is referred to; writers tend to shorten their characters to either their Christian name or surname when referred to outside dialogue, and more often than not within dialogue. But not Robert Jordan. He got the full treatment. It might sound petty, but it was damn annoying. If he’d called him Jordan throughout, he’d have probably knocked 50 pages off the book’s seemingly interminable length.

Hemingway also took to repeating himself. Endlessly. And don’t get me started on the archaic dialogue, with all of its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. He was, apparently, trying to convey the Spanish tongue, and much of the dialogue is, I’m told, a direct translation from Spanish, but it does make some unusual and awkward reading. Another irritating choice was Hemingway’s decision to shy away from using foul language, instead replacing all choice words with, for example, ‘obscenity’ or some such substitute. That may have been very noble, but it doesn’t work.

Point of view is a problem, too. Hemingway used third-person omniscient, which is fine, but frequently switched to long stretches of first-person internal monologue from Jordan (that’s Robert Jordan, to you), and the changes are often clumsy, with little flow. Dare I say it, an editor with more ink in his red pen might have done the trick. I’m sure I will be burning in some literary hell for daring to raise such criticisms of such an acclaimed writer, but there you have it.

The Verdict:

As I’ve not read any of Hemingway’s other works, I don’t want to judge him on the strength of one book. However, he was, by all accounts, held up at the time as a shining example of an economic writer, his journalistic background creating a sparse writing style. Apparently. But it doesn’t come across as very economic in this day and age. If he was alive today and wrote news stories and features akin to his writing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, I doubt he’d last a week on the Isle of Man Courier.

The story itself is fine, the themes important. The characters, by and large, are engaging. And some stretches of writing are beautiful. But the book is hamstrung by Hemingway’s use, and style, of internal monologue and his need to repeat himself ad nauseam. Not to mention the spelling out of Robert Jordan in full. Every. Bloody. Time. That said, it is a story that lingers long in the mind, despite its faults.


As it’s the first book on the list to be read, I guess it has to go straight in at number 1. But don’t expect it to stay there.

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