Monday, August 24, 2015

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1940. Glossy's rating: 6 out of 10.

This book is about an American fighting on the leftist side in the Spanish Civil War. I ended up liking it in spite of its many stylistic problems. 

Hemingway presented a lot of the dialog as if it was translated from Spanish literally. For example his characters sometimes ask each other "what passes?" and urge each other to do things "for a favor". The correct translation of "por favor" is "please" and the correct translation of "que pasa" is "how are you?" The original meanings of these phrases are long gone in Spanish in the same way that the original meaning of good-bye (God be with you) is gone in English. I'm an atheist and I say good-bye all the time. Similarly, the people who tell you "por favor" aren't usually offering you any favors in exchange for anything. That phrase has long ago acquired a new, non-literal meaning which is perfectly translated by the English word "please". 

He even insisted on using "thou" for the Spanish "tu". "Thou dost", "thou speakest", "unprint thyself" - the latter a comic mix of prudishness and excessive literalness. 

There is a lot of repetition in Hemingway's internal monologues. In real life people repeat things to themselves all the time but that's not a reason to bore readers. 

The effect of all this was to make his prose unnecessarily cumbersome. 

On top of that he bowed to the modernist spirit of his time by occasionally throwing up stretches of absolute nonsense. "Warm, scalding coolness" stuck in my mind as an example, but there's lots more, nearly all of it in love scenes. 

And why did he almost always refer to his protagonist as "Robert Jordan"? Not Robert or Bob or Bobby or Jordan but "Robert Jordan"? First name last name. Was he payed by the word? Did he think it was an original, boldly non-conformist thing to do? 

And yet I liked this book. Jordan is competent, brave and unselfish - pretty much how I imagine Hemingway. The moral, human and organizational complexity of his task in the novel approaches that of real-life situations and is interesting on top of that. I always wanted to know how the book would end. The Spanish national character is described here realistically and in a mostly-attractive way.

Spaniards are more generous, braver, and more fond of danger than other Mediterranean peoples. Bullfighting, which Hemingway loved, is a big topic here. They're also elegantly insolent. So are Italians, but in a different way. The cursing in this book is a lot of fun in spite of the prudish substitutions.  

Here Jordan thinks about the differences between the Anglo and Spanish approaches to war, specifically about Spaniards' cruelty: "We do it coldly but they do not, nor ever have. It is their extra sacrament. Their old one that they had before the new religion came from the far end of the Mediterranean, the one they have never abandoned but only suppressed and hidden to bring it out again in wars and inquisitions. They are the people of the Auto de Fé; the act of faith. Killing is something one must do, but ours are different from theirs."

I'm sure that historically northern Europeans killed more people than Mediterraneans. This is because they're more disciplined and better able to work in teams. It's easier to organize them into effective armies. But Mediterraneans (of whom I'm one) are clearly more prone to cruelty. More likely to prefer torture chambers to firing squads. 

Hemingway on Jordan: "He hated injustice as he hated cruelty..." Injustice is a complicated topic. There are so many definitions of it. And I'm against cruelty at the big-picture ideological level. But at the personal, emotional level I definitely do not hate cruelty. In fact in certain moods I would very much like for it to be applied to certain people. Not all that many people. But enough to be sure that I'm not with Jordan/Hemingway on this issue. 

At one point Jordan regrets that the war in which he's fighting isn't the sort where anyone can surrender. That made me curious: was it possible for anyone to surrender in Spain's 18th and 19th century wars, or did they kill captives even then? 

On a lighter note, here's an ethnic stereotype I've never heard of before: "he thought how the word aburmiento which means boredom in Spanish was a word no peasant would use in any other language. Yet it is one of the most common words in the mouth of a Spaniard of any class."

Unfortunately the Spanish national character, which Hemingway clearly loved, is now in danger of disappearing. Right-wingers won the Spanish Civil War, but their work was undone after Franco's death and Spain is now as screwed up as the rest of Western Europe, i.e. as screwed up as it would have been had the leftists won in the 1930s. 

I hate the Republicans for whom Jordan is fighting in this book, but my attitude towards the rightist rebels isn't wholly positive either. Franco's Blue Division participated in the blockade of Leningrad and I'm glad that the USSR won WWII. 

But few would now be able to view either of these sides wholly positively. At one point in this novel Jordan thinks that the world is a fine place and "worth the fighting for". I immediately recognized that phrase as the title of a book by the neocon lapdog John McCain. Well, the neocons now pretend to be anti-Communist, but Jordan is fighting for commies when he thinks that. And the person he has the most regard for in Madrid is a correspondent for Pravda. 

The amount of Soviet involvement in Spain that Hemingway described was surprising to me. It was a full-blown proxy war with a fake native facade. 

"You had to have these peasant leaders quickly in this sort of war and a real peasant leader might be a little too much like Pablo. You couldn’t wait for the real Peasant Leader to arrive and he might have too many peasant characteristics when he did. So you had to manufacture one."

Pablo was a duplicitous, murderous, foul-smelling, hog-like guerrilla chief who gave Jordan a lot of trouble during his assignment. 

Hemingway was a smart and sincere guy. But everyone has blind spots. If he thought that peasant characteristics were bad, why did he support the people who promised to give peasants more power? 

He called the other side in the war fascists, but politics has moved at such a quick and steady pace since he published this novel that his views would now be called fascist too. 

"I’ve known a lot of gypsies and they are strange enough. But so are we. The difference is we have to make an honest living."

"It’s odd to see a gypsy in a war. They should be exempted like conscientious objectors. Or as the physically and mentally unfit. They are worthless."

Just to be clear, I'm sure that Gypsies really aren't suited for organized warfare. 

A while ago I saw someone online describing the Roissian view of gender relations as "For Whom the Belle Toils". And it's clear from this volume that Hemingway thought it natural for a beautiful woman to support a tough, fearless man in all his endeavors. 

I read this novel in a Kindle app. A large number of users highlighted the following passage close the start of the book:

"All the best ones, when you thought it over, were gay. It was much better to be gay and it was a sign of something too. It was like having immortality while you were still alive."

I think we can be reasonably sure that if Hemingway were resurrected and told what that means to modern readers, he'd promptly kill himself again. 

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