For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway. I’ve never really decided how much I like him. Before reading this, I read An Old Man at Sea, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. The former two were interesting, the latter was not. Ernest Hemingway was a great self-promoter and fancied himself a bit, people say. His writing style was certainly very unique and you could tell a million miles away it was a Hemingway novel, with short choppy prose with matter of fact sentences. The problem is, I don’t know how much I like it. Even when people call it journalistic, it just doesn’t grab me. His characters impose themselves on you, and you don’t know if this is Hemingway’s own ego wearing you down or a poor attempt at character building. The men are macho, the women a bit feeble, in my opinion. All the characters seem a bit contrived and unreal. And what’s more, I can’t remember not one single character’s name. Not one. Just through going on Wikipedia, I had to remind myself that the protagonist’s name in For Whom the Bell Tolls is Robert Jordan. That tells you how rememberable the characters are. In my book, if you remember the character’s name, it’s been well written. Simple.
I read For Whom the Bell Tolls while working in Catalonia on a campsite in 2005. During my days off I would always be popping off on road trips on my tod visiting locations and museums to do with the Spanish Civil War. The book was set in Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, but I know Hemingway, as well as George Orwell more famously maybe, spent time in Catalonia fighting Franco’s facists with the International Brigades. It seems strange to be criticising so much and then name it one of my favourites. There’s a lot of hype about the book (as well as scolding criticism), some of which is fair, especially regarding the horrors of war. His writing style kind of sums up the reality of death; flat, numb and final. Looking at it that way, it was well-written. I enjoyed following the plot and was held in suspense. I guess I was caught up in the moment of being in Catalonia reading a book about a war that resulted in Catalan culture being repressed and the language and flag being banned from the late 1930s to the 1970s.
I remember the day I finished reading the novel on a random quiet beach on the Costa Brava. Despite my love of books, I don’t always take great care of them and my copy was scarred with dog-ears, the spine fractured in several places and the pages sticky from a Coca-Cola spill. I doubted anyone else would care to read such a beaten up book so I decided to give it its very own heroic farewell by lancing it stupidly into the warm waves, where it swiftly turned to pulp and polluted the sea. Unfortunately my act of polluting was spotted by the police and they made me a proposition to go in after the book or receive a fine and a day in court. I of course chose the former and I went in redder faced than I was a few moments before (I was sporting a very British scolding sun-burn) fetching the pulp with bathers looking on at this disrespectful guiri with disgust.
I’ve not pulled a stunt like this since. Needless to say, I learned my lesson.
For some years later, I felt that this was one of my favourite books, but as time goes by and I read more, For Whom the Bell Tolls as dropped down the pecking order. For this reason, it is now just an honourable mention.