Hemingway, Ernest: “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.

I am not unbiased when it comes to Hemingway as he is one of my favourite authors. His direct, authoritative style, even when documenting the violent and harsh side of life, is inspiring. Frequently, whilst reading Hemingway, I imagine his gravelly grey voice reading each line aloud. On a recent business trip to London, I re-read “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. As with so much of his writing, it is impossible to separate Hemingway the man from the characters in his stories. Robert Jordan is surely a personification of Hemingway’s experiences fighting Franco’s fascists in Spain.

People cannot even think to a sufficient degree during times of war. They become solely focused on surviving the daily onslaught of violence. Robert Jordan tried to ruminate and intellectualise events yet was always brought back to the base task of living, “turn off the thinking now, old comrade. You’re a bridge blower now. Not a thinker”. Pre-war, he could contemplate life, evolve, conceive, create, write. During the war, he just existed.

Jordan frequently saw himself as an artist, a thinker. His interaction with Pilar  was important and he felt a duty to articulate her story, “if that woman could only write. He would try to write it”. Hemingway saw his job as trying to salvage a speck of humanity in the midst of the madness of war.

Anselmo, the moral character in “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, predicted the type of justice that would latterly be created in the form of the International Criminal Court, supposing that there must be a “great penance done for the killing” that has taken place on both sides throughout the war. He continued that, “all may be cleansed”, after the war. A devout Christian and a good man, Anselmo despised violence in all its forms, saying that “there was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it”.

The gypsy character represented how war had seeped into every part of society. There was no escape for anyone. We learn that he was a “conscientious objector” but are told that “they aren’t exempted in the war. No one was exempted. It came to one and all alike”.

Jordan had an ongoing battle with himself throughout to decipher how to act ethically in a time of bloodshed, “but you have behaved O.K. so far, you have you have behaved all right” he says to himself, once again trying to employ his intellect to interpret the violence that he encountered all around him.

Hemingway was scathing about religion. It was a damning indictment of the Spanish Catholic Church that they allied with fascists and he was not short of decrying them for it. How could a religion that taught people to do good, ally with Franco?

Hemingway was a firm believer in democracy, “muck everybody but the people and then be damned careful what they turn into when they have power”. After a year in which the liberal world order turned and spun on its head, his words are more relevant than ever. Holding people in power to account within democratic countries is of paramount importance.

Hemingway on communism, “you’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Hemingway was clear that whilst the ideals of communism are laudable, it does not work.

Robert Jordan imbibed himself in absinthe, his chosen tipple, to cope with the senselessness surrounding him. “It cures everything” he said. “If you have anything wrong, this will cure it”. His description of drinking is striking, both in its style and intent, “one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening: of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy”. This is one of my favourite pieces of prose from the man. A good friend of mine brought back a bottle of absinthe from Prague while I was in London. We shared a couple of shots before going to Fabric. Hemingway was wrong about absinthe, it is rank! It tastes like alcoholic cement mixer to my tongue. Give me a Guinness every day of the week.  Yet his wonderful line of how absinthe “curls around inside of you” is wonderfully evocative of the warm fuzzy feeling that drinking alcohol gives you.

One of the best put downs of all time is when Hemingway introduced the superb Pilar into the novel, “what are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity”. Moreover, Joaquin’s retort to her after she said, “I shoot no one”. “You don’t need to. You scare them to death with your mouth”.

The opening of chapter thirteen is mesmerising, hypnotic and absorbing, “they were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of the pistol in the holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back”.

His depiction of the cave where the rebels lived reminded me of the end of the “The Dead” by Joyce, “it was so quiet in the cave, suddenly, that he could hear the hissing noise the wood made burning on the hearth where Pilar cooked. He could hear the sheepskin crackle as he rested the weight on his feet. He thought he could almost hear the snow falling outside. He could not, but he could hear the silence where it fell”.

In “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, Hemingway concluded that fighting was not a solution. “We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognise it as it appears and combat it”. Even in our modern society that labels many non-fascists as such, thereby making it difficult to identify the truly dangerous ones, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” serves as a reminder that education, discussion and peaceful dialogue remain the best ways to ward off totalitarian regimes.






About Mick Gilbride

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