Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

I'm fifty years old.  I'm surprised that I never read Hemingway's great novel about the futility of war before now.  Hemingway's big three are The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I was assigned to read A Farewell to Arms my senior year in high school.  I am sure that I will appreciate more than I did then when I read it again.


For Whom the Bell Tolls is Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War.  The Spanish Civil War was the cause celebre of the 1930s.  When a coalition of left wing parties won a majority of seats in the Spanish parliament, a group of army officers, eventually led by General Francisco Franco, launched a rebellion.


Franco and the "Nationalists" were aided by Hitler and Mussolini who sent troops and equipment.
The "Loyalists" or "Republicans" were aided by Stalin and the Soviet Union.  If you considered yourself an intellectual in the 1930s, it was the in thing to be a Communist.  Having romantic notions about the struggle of workers and peasants fighting facists, artists and intellectuals flocked to fight for Republican Spain.


The reality was that neither side in the Spanish Civil War had a real claim to moral superiority.  Both sides were guilty of horrible atrocities.  When either side would take a town, the first thing that usually happened would be that everyone identified as being a member of the other side would be marched to the nearest wall and shot, or as happens in the novel, thrown off of a cliff.


In 1937 Hemingway went to Spain to cover the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Between battles and drinks, he had time to carry on an affair with fellow news correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became the third Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.  Soon after arriving in Spain, Hemingway announced that he was writing a novel about the war.  By the time For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1940, the Nationalists had crushed the Spanish Republic.  The Spanish Civil War had only been a dress rehearsal for a much more horrible conflict.


The hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls is Robert Jordan.  Robert Jordan is the stereo typical Hemingway hero.  Jordan is a professor of Spanish at the University of Montana who has taken a leave of absence to volunteer to fight in Spain.  He worries that he won't be able to get his job back after the war because he's been identified as "a Red."  Like his creator, Jordan says that he's not a Communist he's just in favor of liberty.  He has put himself under Communist command and submitted to Communist discipline because the Communists are the only ones who can organize the army and win the war.  At the start of the war, the Republican Army was composed of militias of various factions, including Anarchists, various kinds of Socialists, and Communists.   The Communists tended to be the best organized.

Ernest Hemingway with Ingrid Bergman who starred as Maria with Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan  in the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jordan is a demolition expert.  He has been assigned by a Soviet General, Golz, to destroy a bridge in the mountains to keep the Nationalists from moving equipment across while the Republican forces launch a surprise attack.  Jordan makes contact with the Republican Partisans who are fighting a guerilla war behind the Nationalist lines.  The partisans are led by the ruthless Pablo and his mistress Pilar.


Even in peacetime, Pablo would probably have been a bandito.  Prior to the opening of the novel, Pablo's band has destroyed and sacked a Nationalist train.  They rescued Maria, a nineteen year old girl who was a prisoner of the Nationalists.  Maria was the daughter of the Republican mayor of a town.  Her father and mother were both shot.   The fascists shaved Maria's head and then raped her. This all happened not long before the opening of the novel.  Pablo believes, rightly, that the operation to destroy the bridge is a suicide mission.  Pablo would much rather loot another train.


Pablo's mistress, Pilar, is one of Hemingway's great characters.  The former mistress of a matador, Pilar is introduced in the novel as "an old woman."  We later find out that Pilar is forty eight!  Pilar relates how Pablo massacred the Nationalist Civil Guard in his village and then threw the town officials and land owners over the side of a cliff.  Hemingway based this on a real incident which occurred in the town of Ronda in Andalucia.


When I say that Robert Jordan is the typical Hemingway hero, he's an intellectual who's also a real man.  He drinks hard, is pretty much fearless in the face of almost certain death, and women cannot resist him.  The novel takes place over four days time.  Even though she is traumatized from being brutally raped, only a few hours after meeting Robert Jordan, Maria is getting naked and crawling in his bed roll.  What a guy!


Hemingway also highlights the incompetence and lack of organization which plagued the Republican forces.  Seeing the Nationalists moving a lot of equipment across the bridge, Jordan realizes that the Nationalists have been tipped off about the Loyalist surprise attack.  Jordan sends one of the partisans, Andres, back to advise General Golz that the attack will fail.  It is in the scenes where Andres is trying to deliver the message to the Soviet General that we see all of the stupidity and disorganization of the Loyalist forces which will ultimately doom their cause to failure.

Anarchist propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War.
F.A.I. stands for "Federacion Anarquista Iberica" or Iberian Anarchist Federation

 First the anarchists on the front lines have to debate whether they are going to let Andres pass or just shoot him on the spot.   Next, an insane Communist Party Commisar arrests Andres and a loyal Republican officer on suspicion of being traitors.  Finally, Jordan's message gets to the General's aide but it is too late to stop the attack.

"They shall not pass!"  Republican propaganda poster.

As the 1965 Cliffs Notes summarize it: "So, here is the crowing irony of the book.  Jordan must blow up a bridge, the destruction of which will be absolutely of no value.  He must carry out his ineffectual assignment because of the ignorance, stupidity, indifference, and self-importance of people who should most logically have done all they could to help his courier get to his destination in time."


I have read on the internet that a lot of people do not like the style which Hemingway used to write For Whom the Bell Tolls.  In order to convey the flavor of the language spoken by the Spanish peasants Hemingway has used "thee" and "thou."  He also sometimes puts the word order the way it would be in Spanish which sounds unnatural in English.  This is the same device he will use for the old Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea.   Another device which is off-putting to modern readers is the device of not saying profanity.  Over and over again we hear the partisans say something like "I obscenity in your mother's milk!"   To modern readers this seems really silly.  We have to realize that had Hemingway actually come out and said "I piss in your mother's milk," his book would never have been published by a reputable publisher and would have been subject to censorship.


A fascinating sub theme that runs through the novel is the loss of God.  The Catholic Church in Spain was identified by the left as allied with the monarchists and large landowners.  The Anarchists and Communists believed that throughout Spanish history the Church had been used as a tool to oppress and control the workers and peasants.  Especially early in the conflict, many atrocities were carried out against priests, monks and nuns.  Many churches were looted and desecrated.  Even though the old religion is gone, the Spanish peasants fighting for the Republic still cling to the mystical heritage of Catholicism.  Pilar relates to Robert Jordan how disappointed Pablo was that the priest in his village did not die bravely.  Even though Pablo rejected the Church and all its teachings, he expected more from a Spanish Priest.

Republican propaganda poster seeking foreign help.

There is a reason that Ernest Hemingway has the reputation of being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  Hemingway's reputation has suffered a great deal in the last few decades because he is seen as a super macho sexist with outdated patriarchal attitudes.  Regardless of all that, I think that Hemingway's work lives up to his reputation.  I enjoyed reading this great classic and recommend it highly.



 

  

Monday, December 26, 2016

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB


This is the tenth novel in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series of detective novels.  It's the first Philip Kerr novel I've read.

The thing which immediately distinguishes this series from just another "hard boiled" detective series (the jacket proudly proclaims that "Philip Kerr is the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler") is the setting of the books in Nazi Germany.

Bernie Gunther used to be a real police detective, now he's just another German trying to survive World War II.  The police have now become a part of the SS, and Bernie is on special assignment for the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels.   There is a beautiful actress, Dalia Dresner, that Herr Goebbels has the hots for.  She wants to know whether or not her father in Croatia is still alive and Goebbels wants her for his movies and his bed.

Philip Kerr

Bernie has a real tendency to leave a body trail behind him.  Bernie also likes beautiful women and they like him.  A recipe for a ripping good yarn and a painless history lesson.  As an SS officer in the Third Reich, Bernie has learned that ordinary murders don't mean much when nations are engaged in genocide.  Written in the first person "hard boiled" style, Kerr is skilled in letting his German Sam Spade tell the tale.

It did feel to me like the novel was somewhat padded and overlong.  If  it was about two hundred pages shorter, it would have been a five star novel.  As it is, the Bad Catholic gives it three and a half Sherlock Holmes hats.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Julian Fellowes' Past Imperfect

Damian Baxter is a fabulously wealthy late middle aged businessman who has a problem.  Damian is dying of cancer and wants to leave all of his money to his illegitimate child that he fathered as a young adult back in the swinging sixties.  All Damian has to go on is a letter written to him by the mother telling Damian that "he ruined her life."  The other problem is that Damian doesn't know who among the bevy of beauties that he bedded back then is the mother of his child.


After not hearing from each other for decades because of an embarrassing episode at a house party in Portugal, which we are kept in suspense about until the very end of the novel, and which really is not nearly as shocking as the build up leads the reader to believe that it will be,  Damian contacts the un-named narrator, who has had a moderately successful career as a novelist.  The narrator, "Fellowes," hates Damian but cannot resist going to see him.  "Fellowes" also cannot resist carrying out Damien's last request to find the mother of Damian's child and seeing that he or she inherits all of Damien's fabulous wealth.


The book goes back and forth between the present (the book was first published in 2008) and the late 1960s.  The book has all the inside scoop on the British upper classes that you would expect from the creator of Downton Abbey.  The novel chronicles one of the last debutante seasons in the late sixties when the parents of the aristocracy and the rich paraded their daughters from one dance and party to another to find an appropriate husband.

Just like in real life, what we want to become in our youth is rarely what really happens to us.  Past Imperfect is a well written and entertaining soap opera.  And it's educational.  You may learn how to dress for dinner if you're ever invited to an English country house or how to appropriately address the daughter of an Earl.  Five out of five.

Lord Julian Fellowes

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Chesil Beach

A really talented writer can pack an entire world into a very few pages.  This is exactly what the gifted Ian McEwan has done in his short novel On Chesil Beach, published in 2007.

When we first meet Edward and Florence they are a young couple who have just been married hours before and are off on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach.  Their fumbling sexual dysfunction and psychological baggage cause them to have a disastrous wedding night which has a catastrophic effect on the rest of their lives.

After reading this, the reader is totally immersed in the world of a young intellectual English couple in the early 1960s.  In a few short pages(the novel is only 166 pages), we learn all about Edward and Florence's childhood and their courtship and hangups.  Edward's father is a school headmaster who has to take care of his brain damaged wife and his three children.  Florence's mother is an emotionally cold Oxford philosophy professor who would rather read Plato than be with her children.  There are subtle clues that Florence may have been sexually abused by her father.  (I didn't pick up on this until I started reading reviews of the book online.  After being pointed out to me, I now see the clues in the novel.  Was Florence molested by her father?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The reader will have to decide).


Anyway, I can't say too much about this intriguing little story or it will give away too much.  But On Chesil Beach is definitely a great read.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

I AM LEGION


I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I did.  It was written by A.N. Wilson who is a very good writer and it was about the Christian religion, which is a topic that interests me.  But Wilson's I Am Legion published in 2004 just fell flat, and frankly, wasn't very good.

Some reviewers description on Amazon that influenced me to purchase a copy of the novel said that one of the main characters of the novel, Father Vivyan Chell, was a thinly disguised Thomas Merton. I confess that I don't see it.  About the only thing that Vivyan Chell and Thomas Merton have in common in that they are both priests and they both have trouble maintaining their vow of celibacy.


Father Vivyan Chell is a former British Army Officer who has joined an Anglican religious order and become a priest.  For many years, he has been running a mission in a fictional African country called Zinariya.  As a teenager, Lennox Mark comes to Father Vivyan's mission and is struck by his holiness and his work with the poor.

Lennox comes very near to dedicating his life to Christ and staying with the mission, but after living with the monks for several months, he goes back to his life of wealth and privilege.  When the novel opens, Lennox Mark is an overweight, middle aged millionaire who owns a muck racking tabloid newspaper called The Daily Legion.


One of Father Vivyan's former students in Zinariya, whom he had great hopes for, has become the dictator of Zinariya.  Like every other character in this novel, General Bindiga is little more than a caricature (think Idi Amin).

Turns out that Father Vivyan is not nearly as holy as everybody thinks he is.  For years he has been living in sin with a series of African women.  Finally, out of guilt he comes home to England and is put in charge of a slum parish which he opens up to the poor and destitute.  Once again, his libido gets the best of him and he has affairs with a series of women.

Author A.N. Wilson with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams

One of the women Father Vivyan has sex with is Mercy Topling, who is a 2nd generation immigrant from Jamaica.  Mercy also once worked as Lennox Mark's secretary and also has a short affair with him.   When Mercy becomes pregnant she is not sure who the father is.  Mercy gives birth to Peter.

Peter, it turns out, has split personality disorder which gets worse as he gets older.  Peter's split personalities run the gamut from a highly intellectual English butler all the way to a retarded homicidal maniac.   It turns out that Peter has been sexually molested by his school counselor, which only makes his mental imbalance worse.

A.N. Wilson with his daughter

Lennox Mark is married to Martina, a former East German prostitute.  Martina's mother, who apparently is trotted out at dinner parties to scare the guests, is horribly disfigured having been shot in the face by East German border guards while escaping from the Iron Curtain.  Martina has only married Lennox for his money and influence and has had a long standing lesbian relationship with Mary Much, another former prostitute who is now a columnist for The Daily Legion.  When Peter, looking for his father, who Mercy has told him is Lennox Mark even though she thinks his father is really Father Vivyan, comes to the Mark's house and murders a delivery boy, Martina and Mary hide him out and make him the chief butler.  Martina  and Mary find Peter very attractive and it is strongly hinted that they begin a sexual relationship with him.

If this description sounds like this novel is a muddled mess, that just about describes it.  The convoluted plot also involves an artist supported by Martina and Mary who's new performance art is a glass toilet which is to be installed in the foyer of the The Daily Legion and which the artist himself will sit upon and take a crap, but is blown up by terrorists led by Father Vivyan who are rebelling against the British support for General Bindiga.

A.N. Wilson enjoys a libation

I have the overwhelming feeling that the hours I spent reading this thing could have been better spent doing something else, like watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island.   Wilson tries to make this mess a serious novel by discussing serious issues, like the existence of God and the nature of faith, but it just doesn't work.

Obviously, the title is taken from the demoniac in the Gospel of Mark, where the man possessed by demons tells Jesus "My name is Legion: for we are many." (Mark 5:9).  The demon possession theme is not only the boy with the split personalities but also the Fleet Street rag that prints lies and half-truths to sell newspapers.

Over all, although I generally admire A.N. Wilson's work, this just falls flat.  Two out of Five.

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE NIGHT VISITOR AND OTHER STORIES


I greatly enjoyed this collection of short stories by the mysterious B. Traven.


All of the stories in this collection are set in Mexico at various periods and most of them involve the lives of the native Indians.


The title story The Night Visitor is a ghost story about an ancient Aztec king who visits an expatriate American living in the jungle.  Effective Medicine is about another expatriate American who is asked by an Indian to help him when the Indian's wife runs off with another man.  Assembly Line is about a wealthy American businessman who thinks he has figured out a way to get rich off of the home-made crafts of a poor Mexican peasant artisan.  The Cattle Drive is self-explanatory.  When the Priest Is Not at Home is a comic story about the real story behind a miracle which is reported in a small Mexican village while the parish priest is away from home.  Midnight Call is another story about an expatriate American and the visit he receives from banditos during the middle of the night.  A New God Was Born takes us back to the times of the Conquistador Hernando Cortez and the gift he leaves for an isolated group of Indians who live deep in the jungle of Central America.  Friendship is about the relationship between a man and a stray dog.  Conversion of Some Indians is also set during period of the Spanish conquest of the New World and involves the efforts of a Catholic missionary to convert the Indians.  Macario is a charming folk tale about a man whose dream of a life time is to eat a whole roast Turkey with all the trimmings all by himself.


There is a whole library of literature about who B. Traven really was.  The elusive B. Traven began publishing stories and novels, mostly set in Mexico, in Germany during the 1920s.  Scholarly opinion is pretty much agreed today that B. Traven was the pen name adopted by Ret Marut (also probably a false name) who was a Communist and sometime Anarchist who was a part of the short lived Bavarian Soviet Republic which came to power for a very short time in 1919.  Fleeing from Germany, Marut was briefly imprisoned as an undocumented alien in England and eventually wound up in Mexico where he went by various names.  For many years, Traven lived in Mexico under the assumed name Hal Croves.  Hal Croves died in 1969.  Traven's most famous work is the novel
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which was the basis for a film directed by John Huston which starred Humphrey Bogart.