It is quite an achievement to get a literary worked linked forever with an event but Ernest Hemingway achieved that with For Whom the bell tolls and the Spanish Civil War.
An account of the Spanish Civil War from the view point of an American explosives expert who is sent on a mission to blow up a bridge. Trough a story that lasts only four days we get a whole gamut of emotions ranging from love and lust for Maria to despair at the end and hatred and frustration on the way between. The sense of frustration about the way the war is managed that echoes from Orwell is highlighted with the mad French communist general but the added dimension to this story is the multiple view points that lead to the conclusion that all war is senseless and there are victims on both sides. Reading it against a backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the civil war (which it is this July) also made it resonate that little bit more deeply.
is it well written?
There are parts of the book that are so powerful, particularly between Jordan and Maria, and the climax of blowing the bridge that it puts the reader right in the action. His ability to step inside any of the characters including even those fascist soldiers fighting against Jordan is something that most other authors avoid sticking instead to one narrative position. Even at the end he reminds us that the officer Jordan is about to kill was one of those involved with fighting against Sordo.
There is a pace to the book kept going by the tension created between the principle characters and the mission. Hemingway continually draws on the palm reading Jordan received from Pilar early on and we can all guess it showed his death. He also highlights the battle between bravery and cowardice in the figure of Pablo.
Aside from the descriptions and the characterisation the other skill is weaving in at various points the story of the war and the differences between the two sides.
Should it be read?
It’s rare that a book can appeal to someone without an interest in the context but this should be read even by those without an interest in the Spanish Civil War. It is a story about two sides fighting and the decisions that are made in a conflict and for that reason it could be about any conflict and is about human beings and not about generals and military manoeuvres. For anyone who starts to think that most American literature is obsessed by class and race this is a demonstration that there are other basic human emotions that can be tackled very cleverly indeed.
This could be a springboard into more Hemingway, books on the civil war or as a spur to read some more American great writers. I am taking the later course because of the Beevor and Orwell stuff already being done. Hemingway will be returned to but just not yet.
Version – Penguin Modern Classics range, published 1961
So the book concludes in a flurry of death, frustration and tragedy. The pace is maintained by the switching back from Andres carrying Robert Jordan’s message trying to stop the attack to the tension in the camp about what the morning will bring. Then when the attack starts the action makes reading 50 pages feel like reading five.
Bullet points between pages 351 – 444
* Andres sets off to take the message but it takes a long time and he accepts he will miss the attack and when the message gets through it is too late
* Pablo returns with five rebels promising to fight for the cause
* Robert and Anselmo blow up the bridge while Pablo and the five new rebels dispatch the other sentry post
* Anselmo is killed as are two more of the group – Fernando and Eladio – and the five rebels who Pablo found are shot by him as he escapes from an armoured car
* As the remaining members of the group escape Robert breaks his leg as his horse is injured and signals to Pablo that he can’t go on because he will slow them down
* Robert convinces Maria to leave and then settles down with a gun to wait for the fascist troops to come.
It is too early to produce a full review of the book because its impact is still very fresh. But even now you can rank this as a brilliant novel that puts you in the minds of multiple characters allowing you to share the ectasy of love, the frustrations of war and the fear and dangers of action.
Will post a full review tomorrow.
Sticking with American writers will start Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck on Monday.
Things heat up immediately in chapter 21 with the moment when Robert, who is sleeping outside encounters a cavalryman and shoots him. That decision leads to a nerve racking day that culminates with doubts creeping in to Jordan and the end of Sordo’s band in the mountains.
Bullet points between pages 253 – 351
* Robert shoots a cavalryman and then has to prepare the group for action
* He becomes in effect the leader of the group
* El Sordo and his forces are wiped out by soldiers and planes
* Robert sends a message through to General Golz trying to get the bridge blowing mission cancelled
* On the eve of the attack Pablo disappears taking some dynamite and the detonator
Where Hemingway differs from some authors is that he is determined to provide different points of view. Some others would stick with Jordan and relay that Sordo had been killed through the sounds of the battle and the discovery afterwards by Pablo of the corpses but he goes much further. So you get to be with Sordo when he dies, in the minds of the officers trying to kill him on the hill and get the responses to the action from Robert and those around him. You even get to be with the messenger he sends to Golz and get to share his feelings about the battle.
All of these view points add to the feeling this is starting to climax in the final day of the battle. Tomorrow should be an eventful day in the book…
Third day into the book and it has been an opportunity for some of the main characters – Robert, Pilar and Anselmo - to share their thoughts with the readers filling in some of the background to why they ended up fighting in the war.
You also get a fixing for the timing, 1936 or early 1937 and a clear idea of what drove the people to war and the anger they had for thosfasciststs living rich off the hard work of the peasants.
Bullet points between pages 149 – 253
* Pilar recounts how the uprising started and the violence she was involved with Pablo in cleansing their home town by killing all the fascists
* Robert starts to think about how long he will be with Maria and faces up to the problems blowing the bridge during daylight and the subsequent retreat
* He also recalls how he was Spanish teacher and the problems being classed as a ‘red’ might cause for his career
* Anselmo waits watching the road and the guard house and thinks about killing and how he wished he didn’t have to do any more
* The relationship between Pablo and Augustin and to some extent the rest of the group starts to disintegrate but then it calms down although they all suspect Pablo heard them all planning to kill him
* Robert dreams of going back to Madrid with Maria if the mission is successful.
Things again are on a knife edge with Pablo becoming more unstable, the mission deadline looming and different reactions stirring towards Robert partly because of his growing love of Maria and partly because of the distance he has put between himself and some gyspy Spanish beliefs. Let’s read on for more tomorrow…
Second major day into the book and it is starting to develop with some of the questions being answered and others lingering on. You can feel the tension mounting and fears about the war and the chances of success of the bridge blowing mission mounting in the small group of Republican fighters.
In terms of characters the old man Anselmo has faded into the background but Pablo’s wife Pilar and the girl Maria have become stronger. Also some of the other members, who spent most of their time guarding the camp: Fernando, Augustin and the gypsy are getting fleshed out a little bit more.
Bullet points between pages 59 – 148
*It doesn’t take long for things to develop between Robert and Maria
*Some of the group expected Robert to kill Pablo but he lets the chance go
*fascists send over bombers and fighters which scares everyone
*Rumours of republican forces blowing up the bridge are circulating the town
*Jordan links up with the other rebel group led by El Sordo
You are starting to get the feeling with the display of bombers and fighter planes, the heavy fascist troop movements and the mental state of the republican forces that the mission will end in disaster. Let’s see what happens in the next chunk of reading tomorrow…
As we go into the week ahead when For whom the bell tolls will be read I’d like to set the scene after the first four chapters. The main character is an American called Robert Jordan who is fighting against Franco’s fascist forces with orders to blow up a bridge. We start the story with an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War being ordered by general Golz to blow the bridge and then his scouting of the bridge and the rebel base in the company of an old man, Anselmo.
Bullet points between pages 1-59
*Jordan has to blow up a bridge
*The group Jordan has to work with are led by someone against the plan, a man named Pablo, but the others are generally supportive.
*Pablo has an argument with his wife where she calls him a coward and takes the dominant role
*The group Jordan is sent to work with have had previous experience of an American explosives expert Kashkin who seemed to have lost his nerve after his mission to blow up a train and later died
*Jordan meets Maria, a prisoner who was released in the train explosion the group was involved with and he is attracted to her and the feeling is mutual.
At the end of chapter 4 Hemingway has built up the tension about the mission, the group dynamics and the chances of success against the fascist forces. You don’t know if the bridge will be blown or if it will but the group will be killed. Maybe Pablo will try to stop him and will he end up disappearing after the mission with Maria?
A great book should ask the reader questions and get you excited about when you next open the pages. So far Hemingway is living up to his reputation and the painting of the scene is excellent and the characterisation is good. My one complaint would be that unless you had some basic historical knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you would struggle to understand fully what the context of the story was. Some of the language – the use of Thou in particular – is obviously of the time and maybe hasn’t aged well.
But he may put some historical background in later on let’s see what comes in the next 100 pages tomorrow…
Reading now…For whom the bell tolls by Ernest Hemingway
I read books ideally from a Friday to a Friday and so I just started this and am about 50 pages in. There is such a weight of expectation going into a Hemingway that comes from his reputation and the number of high profiles fans he has. So far the story has been sketched – the blowing up of the bridge mission – and the main characters have been introduced and you feel that at some point soon the pace will pick up and he his writing will really grab you. We’ll have to see next week if that’s true.