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.



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