Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2020

For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

I encountered For Whom The Bell Tolls first in 2007, when I borrowed the audio book read by Campbell Scott from the library, and I liked it so much that I bought my own copy and have listened to it two or three times since then.  It’s my book of choice for long haul flights, because it doesn’t matter if I nod off—I know every word of the plot by now and it’s the timbre of Scott’s voice and his masterful rendition of the thoughts of Robert Jordan that I love to listen to.

That made it the perfect choice for bedtime ‘reading’ during my recovery from eye surgery.  In the beginning I was taking heavy-duty painkillers so I did indeed nod off,  and I listened to more than one of the sixteen CDs two or three times, savouring every word of the story yet unable to stay awake to the end of them.  Which is why it has taken almost four weeks to finish the book…

There are many things to love about For Whom The Bell Tolls.  It’s a story about high idealism, and about the doomed courage of the people who fought against Franco’s militarily superior fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).  The central character Robert Jordan is a young academic who teaches Spanish, and he joins the defence of the democratically elected Second Spanish Republic, which was supported by workers, peasants and by the Soviet Union because of its land reforms.  (I owe some of what I know about the Spanish Civil War from a most informative short course run by Graham Pratt at the Hawthorn U3A).  The novel traces Jordan’s journey both literal and psychological as he follows orders to travel behind enemy lines and destroy a bridge in order to frustrate a forthcoming offensive.

Under the command of the Soviet General Golz, Jordan joins up with a band of local anti-fascist guerrillas to undertake his mission.  At the beginning of the story he has no fear of danger because he places no great value on his own life.  He is fighting for a greater good, the principle of democracy and an equitable division of a nation’s wealth, and is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the cause.  But although at the beginning of his mission he tells General Golz he has no time for girls, when he falls for Maria in the guerrilla camp his perspective shifts.  His life—and hers even more so—begin to matter.  Through his internal dialogues, the novel traces Jordan’s transition from dispassionate acceptance that lives must be sacrificed to an emotional epiphany that it is not so simple.

In contrast to Jordan’s idealism is Pablo, the leader of the guerrilla camp. He is brusque and rude, and is prepared to frustrate Jordan’s operation because it poses a risk to the surviving forces in the mountains.  He knows that if the bridge is blown up, the fascists will hunt them down in retaliation.  He knows that the Republic is doomed, and there are few places of safety left.  Anselmo, a much older guerrilla fighter, scorns him as one who was once a great warrior but is now only concerned with himself, but it is Pablo who speaks the truth about the war. Whereas General Golz complains that their problems are lack of coherent organisation and a fractured command structure, Pablo articulates why the Republicans failed: it was because they were militarily inferior in every way.  They were outclassed in the air, their weapons were pitiful, and even the beautiful cavalry horses they stole from the enemy had injuries.  As the novel progresses, we see that the enemy has tanks and artillery; the guerrillas do not even know what these weapons are.

Within the guerrilla band, Jordan has to rely on illiterate men who cannot read identity passes, or record the movement of enemy personnel or remember passwords.  Their hope and naiveté is charming and often droll, but some of them—like the light-hearted gypsy Rafael—do not understand what is at stake and are unreliable in critical ways.  Surprisingly—since Hemingway has a reputation for hyper-masculinity and his representation of Maria’s seemingly premature resilience after gang-rape by the fascists is problematic—his characterisation of Pilar, the mujer [woman] of Pablo, is impressive.  From the outset she displaces Pablo as the leader of the guerrilla band.  Like a model for a granite monument, she is fiercely loyal and utterly reliable.  A patriot who has supported the republic since the beginning, she runs her unruly ‘household’ in the cave with a firm grip; and while she performs housewifely duties like cooking and mending and the mothering of the traumatised Maria, Robert Jordan trusts Pilar from the moment he meets her and recognises her authority.  She understands tactics, and she knows the risks, but she never hesitates to cooperate with Robert Jordan’s orders from above.  She is astonishingly brave.

A word about the language: the narrative is written in third-person limited omniscient mode, but in two very different narrative styles.  Robert Jordan’s inner thoughts are rendered in everyday American English, but all the dialogue amongst the guerrilla band takes place in Spanish.  To achieve this Hemingway renders Spanish singular forms with the archaic English thee and thou and very formal grammatical structures.  What seem like quaint grammatical forms—such as the possessive with the woman of Pablo rather than ‘Pablo’s woman’—reinforce that Jordan is an outsider translating from one language to another.

You can see the somewhat stilted effect here: I have quoted this excerpt from Wikipedia since I was listening to an audio book, not reading the book.  (Though I do have a first edition, which I found in a country bookshop.  It’s the most expensive book in my collection).

‘It is possible.’
‘Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.’
‘Yes, we will have to fight.’
‘But are there not many fascists in your country?’
‘There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.’  (Wikipedia cites this from pp. 207-8 of the edition they were using, published in 1940 by Charles Scribner).

Another stylistic feature of note is that while some of his characters swear vociferously their blasphemies and oaths are rendered using the words ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscenity.’  (You can read more about this at Wikipedia.) This may have been a way of rendering the authentic crudity of the peasants without running foul of censors, but the overall effect is to give the text a somewhat Biblical feel, or perhaps an allusion to John Donne’s 17th century Meditation XVII, from which the novel takes its name.

No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne, 1624, see Wikipedia.)

I love this book, and I love this narration by Campbell Scott.  When I can’t sleep, I’m listening to it all over again, and I’m also listening to it while I work on my ‘lockdown project’, scrapbooking my 2019 trip to New Zealand…

 

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Title: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Publisher: Simon Schuster Audio, 2006, first published 1940
ISBN: 9780743564380
Personal library.


Responses

  1. I’ve read more non fiction about Hemingway and his wives than actually reading his books. I do need to lift my game regarding his work.

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    • LOL I would have said the same thing in my younger days! We never had to read him at school or university, but of course when I was writing essays about the authors we did study (Carson McCullers, William Faulkner &c) I read up about US Lit in general. I didn’t actually read him till I was in my forties. And that was The Old Man and The Sea and I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, compared to Steinbeck whose books I loved.

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      • I have always loved Steinbeck more than Hemingway though I hear both men could be quite difficult. We had to read Old Man and The Sea. None of us liked it and the teacher had to explain all the symbolism in it that went way over our 16 yr old heads. Grapes of Wrath was preferred but that had tight censorship controls on it at the time.

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        • Yes, I heard that it was a banned book in the US, especially in the Bible Belt.

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  2. I’ve read several EH’s books but not this one, probably his most famous. But just interesting to read about your listening experience: “…That made it the perfect choice for bedtime ‘reading’.” I too like to listen to audiobooks at bedtime. One of the reasons is that I can get to sleep easier. Yes I need to choose ones with a soothing voice. The next day I’d listen to all the chapters I’d missed after falling asleep. :)

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    • Yes, exactly, that’s why having it on while I do my scrapbook works so well!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What can I say? The commentary around the name Hemingway has put me off him and on Spain I prefer Orwell.

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    • Oh come on, Bill, trust me on this one. Get the audio book and then tell me I’m wrong if you like, but do give it a try…

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  4. I came to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinback and other American writers living in the outer suburbs of Sydney as a new chum. It was when you could join a book club through an ad in daily newsprint. What a gift! It helped me survive the isolation of suburbia with three little ones. I must have read this novel for I have memories of it as you describe. Like you John Steinback became one of my favourites. Grapes of Wrath I can never forget. A bit like the experience of reading Sons and Lovers for the first time. Books bring so much nourishment to us and oh how fortunate we are to have your always interesting and enjoyable reviews. Stay well.

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    • Thank you Fay, I feel blessed to have so many friends here online:)
      And you are so right about the experience of reading some of these great books for the first time… I was trying to explain to a neighbour today why I have so many books and I said they were like my friends. When I look at them I remember the joy of reading them!

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  5. I never much cared for Hemingway either Lisa but looks like I’ll have to try this one… our only bookstore here (which just won the Regional Bookstore of the Year award!) closed its doors today, for the foreseeable future.

    In reply to Fay above, I have loved Steinbeck since I was a teenager – so glad to hear of someone else who is a fan Fay!

    Lisa I still have some of the books my mother gave me as birthday presents – including the first two books I ever owned as a little toddler! You’re right, they are just like old friends. I couldn’t bear to part with them!

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    • I have a sad Steinbeck story.
      IN an Op Shop somewhere, I stumbled on a hardback copy of his Once There Was a War, which was a series of dispatches from WW2. The first one, where he writes about the men on a troopship heading for Europe is one of the most moving pieces of writing about war that I’ve ever read. I loved that book.
      When my FIL was in hospital with a broken hip, I took it in for him to read because he’d been in the navy. And I never got it back. It niggled and niggled at me, because it was like losing a friend, and in the end I bought another copy, but it was not the same because it was a reissued paperback, not the same thing at all, not a book read and loved by someone who had lived through that era.
      I still look out for it when I’m in Op Shops. Somebody’s got it, and it’s mine!

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  6. I seem to remember Gary Cooper as Jordan in the film version – not a great success (GC or the film) if memory serves. I found his use of Spanish-inflected English pretty annoying, but can see why he did it (he does something similar in Across the River, which is set in Venice – I posted on it a year or so back). I think he uses the same technique in A Farewell to Arms, his fictionalised account of his experience as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI. It was one of my ‘set texts’ for A Level Eng Lit, many years ago. He’s a writer who I find interesting, but limited. And what a horrible man. I’m not entirely convinced that he was genuinely anti-Franco – not in later life, anyway. His republican sympathies in the thirties seem to me skin-deep. Maybe I’ve just become a cynical grump. Some of the earliest posts on my blog were about him: A Moveable Feast, his famous story Cat in the Rain, and Paula McClain’s novelisation of his life with Hadley, Paris Wife. His tendency to blow his own trumpet isn’t attractive.

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    • Good grief, I hate to imagine how Hollywood would have ruined this book. Perhaps the French could do it properly, I’m not sure about Spanish filmmakers, much of what I’ve seen has been absurdly melodramatic.
      Somebody gave me a copy of Paris Wife, but I’ve never mustered interest in reading it. Hemingway may not have been a nice man, but what this audio book version of this book does for me is to reinforce the justice of the Republican cause and the tragedy of its defeat and Franco’s brutal dictatorship for so many decades afterwards. (The Spouse tells me that on the night Franco died, the Spanish community in Melbourne came out onto the streets and danced.)
      I’ll have a hunt around on your blog for your posts about him, in the morning, it’s almost midnight now and time for bed…

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      • Hope when you read this you’ve slept well and peacefully. I lived for best part of a year around 1989 in San Sebastián, the beautiful seaside Basque city. Friends there told me that when the attempted coup took place led by the swaggering Francoist Col. Tejero in 1981, the mass exodus that took place after the defeat of the Republicans that ended the civil war was replicated. A convoy of people in vehicles headed over the nearby French border, convinced that the terrible fascist regime ‘cuando Franco’ was being restored. There’s a fascinating account of it by Javier Cercas, Anatomy of a Moment (another one for you to hunt down on T. Days!) Sorry about the shameless plugs…

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  7. I haven’t read Hemingway for so long. He’s one of the authors I want on my blog one day. This is one of the ones I’m considering – you’ve encouraged me to keep it in the mix. I like Hemingway’s spare writing.

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  8. Thanks for the link to your lovely Basque anecdote. Yes, I’ve seen the footage of the odious Tejero waving his gun about in the Spanish parliament. ETA were still active when I was in Donostia. Cars with Madrid plates would often be vandalised. I walked on the Concha beach one morning and heard a commotion nearby. I later learned a retired army officer had been shot dead as he sat on a bench looking at the sea. Difficult to sympathise with such violence – but the Basques suffered horribly under Franco. As here in the UK where Welsh and Gaelic languages were proscribed in schools and elsewhere, Basque was forbidden. Now it’s compulsory for anyone who works in the public sector – as with Catalan in the north-east. My grandsons attend a primary school where it’s the only language spoken. Did you ever try learning any Basque? It’s fiendishly difficult!

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    • LOL No I did not… I learned Spanish for six months before we travelled and that was hard enough.
      Still, I knew enough not to use it in San Sebastian…
      I have, however, read a novel, Seven Houses in France by Basque author Bernardo Atxaga, (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) and for my trouble, got ticked off for ‘exoticising Basque culture’ in my review!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nothing wrong necessarily – Basque culture has some exotic aspects! I read Atxaga’s novel Obabakoak some time ago (in English translation) – interesting. I did try a bit of basic Basque, but decided it was so hard I’d restrict myself to the vocabulary of the animal world. Otxoa: wolf, etc. This is also a common Basque surname – interestingly, the Castilian equivalent is ‘Lope’, as in de Vega.

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        • I suspect that I inadvertently trod on political toes. There would be strong feelings, I guess, in a country where separatist issues have caused violence in the case of the Basque country, and constitutional chaos in the case of Catalonia, so any acknowledgement, however naïve, that there is something special about a subculture is inflammatory.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoy Hemingway’s style and so I’ve been meaning to read this forever! I really must get to it and you’ve encouraged me even more.

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    • I’ll be interested to hear whether you like it as a book. A big part of why this works for me is Campbell Scott’s narration. I have read it as a book, but because I’d heard the audio book first, I ‘heard’ it as I read the words…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I recall reading “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” back to back and thinking that the former put him on the map but the latter is a much, much better book. (Others may find different threads that lead them to different evaluations, but for me it wasn’t a close call.)

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    • It’s nice to meet someone else who likes Hemingway!
      I’ve read TSAR, though I said very little about the book when I wrote about it (https://anzlitlovers.com/2009/11/18/the-sun-also-rises-by-ernest-hemingway/) but, for reasons I can’t explain it’s FWTBT that has stolen my heart. I can’t read it without memories of being in Spain and meeting lovely people and thinking of the pain that lies buried just below the surface wherever you go.
      BTW I like your blog. I don’t share your taste in music, but I think it’s brilliant the way you’ve used a song to teach your students about “irony, rhetorical frames and clichés, collocations, and idioms”. These things are notoriously difficult to explain to ESL students and your post about how you did it so effectively is a masterclass in pedagogy.
      Take care, stay safe, and keep washing your hands! Lisa:)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I haven’t read this one. Do you think I can read it in English or would I be better off with a French translation?

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    • I think you’d probably be ok. Your English is much better than my French, and Hemingway is famous for using plain English anyway.

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      • It’s the thou / thee thing and other non-plain English that worry me. Are there a lot of them?

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        • Well, he does use thee/thou and other slightly different sentence constructions to signify whenever the Spaniards are speaking. But because he does that consistently, I think you’d get used to it very quickly. What makes reading in another language hard is a lot of slang or idiomatic expressions, and I don’t think he does that, apart from called Maria ‘Little Rabbit’!.

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  12. […] at bedtime.  But in the event, I listened to Campbell Scott’s narration of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Heroes languished until more recently when my old foe, insomnia, surfaced again.  I am pleased […]

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