‘You like to hunt?’
‘Yes, man. More than anything. We all hunt in my village. You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’

Dear The Rest of the World,

This is a little epistle about the anxiety of reading Very Important Books. This point has become of interest to me because I have finally read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. It’s the only Ernest Hemingway book I’ve ever read (apart from The Old Man and the Sea, which almost doesn’t count because it’s so beautiful and austere it reads like a story that has always existed about the creation of the world). I read For Whom the Bell Tolls every day on the train, swallowing that restraintful, resolute prose in twenty-page increments. How could someone portray the scale of war so well by simply writing about the monoplanes that fly over one small patch of Spanish sky and the cafes where Communist heroes go to meet their mistresses; and how is it possible that in the same book, that author can desolate as well as exhilarate a reader by furnishing them with a many-layered portrait of a man behind enemy lines?

But even though the famous terse locution thrilled me, and the intimacy with the protagonist, Robert Jordan, edified me, I have to admit to you, The Rest of the World, that sometimes I felt a little adrift. I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, and I don’t know much about Hemingway either. And when I felt my attention begin to wane, I panicked a little. Did I not know enough about the context to enjoy this canonical book? Was there something else I just wasn’t getting? Can I ask you a question, The Rest of the World? (And do you mind if I just call you ‘World’?) Do you get this anxious about reading canonical novels? Is it like going out on a date with the quarterback (or the full-forward)?

So I did what I usually do in these situations: turn to people who know more about things than I do. I found four academic articles about For Whom the Bell Tolls. In true me-style, I had picked one article which only referred to the book once, so that left me with three. The others were interesting, though. Kristine A. Wilson introduced me to the word ‘tauromachy’ (show-off synonym for ‘bullfighting’) and more importantly Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept of duende as a way of interpreting the novel. Duende is a slightly amorphous notion, but can approximately be described as ‘a depth and quality of emotion, a dramatic sense of emotional intensity, manifested in the production and experience of great art.’

Vague as that definition might be, World, I found this a very useful concept. Lorca claims that this variant of pathos resonates especially for the Spanish people, who accord death a special status. Duende arises out of a recognition of the tension between life and death, as well as the spectre and ‘weight of human history’. All this tension is aimed at an audience and ‘inspires passion for life’ –a little like the Greeks’ catharsis. Wilson’s article helped with the parts of the novel I found most difficult, which were the love scenes between Jordan and his guapa, Maria. These scenes are positively flowery compared to the terseness of the language elsewhere, and full of the kinds of claims–the earth moves!–that romantic little boys and girls everywhere might find sigh-inducing. I found them grossly misjudged at the time of reading, and I still find them some of the worst-written passages of the book, but Lorca’s schema gives them a place in Hemingway’s emotion-building.

The third article, ‘Gendering Men: Re-Visions of Violence as a Test of Manhood in American Literature’ by Josep Armengol, proposed that Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of violence as a test of manhood because of a violent father and evidenced by participation in military activities and hunting, and of course, his novels which ‘recurrently explore “the condition of a man in a society upset by the violence of war”‘. Thus, it follows that violence was one of his main fictional subjects. My understanding of For Whom the Bell Tolls was not as radically improved by this article, World — I didn’t think it was rigorous enough in defining its terms. But it did shade in a few pale areas of Hemingway’s personal history.

Finally, the work of Karen Engle, which used For Whom the Bell Tolls as a springboard for discussion of how sexual war crimes are conceptualised by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. That’s two of my favourite topics together, World, human rights and literature. Engle wrote about the judicial treatment of rape by the ICTY and how it functioned ‘to limit the narratives about women in war, denying much of women’s sexual, political, and military agency.’ Although many people consider Hemingway a misogynist, Engle argued that Hemingway’s portrayal of Maria was more complex than simply ‘victim’; she is also a woman who fought her abusers, assists with the partizans‘ preparations for the blowing up of the bridge, and continues to have a successful sexual life despite the suffering she sustains every day.

So, World, I think I succeeded in milking For Whom the Bell Tolls of as much meaning as I could happily extract without getting a qualification/payment out of it. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that I did get bored at times with the seemingly interminable minutiae in the novel. But I’m at peace with that being a subjective judgment, rather than the corollary of being poorly informed. As a bonus, my not-quite-connection with the book tossed me into contact with some interesting things. Sure, I’m a neurotic reader, but I’m a contented one now, too.

Nice feelings,

Comments (4)
  1. Congrats on reading an intimidating novel. I think finding essays about it is a great way to help.

    I haven’t read this one, but I read Hemingway’s stories and had a hard time getting through them. I gave up after a few.

    I also loved Old Man and the Sea. You describe it well.

  2. Rebecca — It was very easy to start off with but it got harder and harder to read. I think the length of The Old Man and the Sea works well for Hemingway’s style of prose, but I needed a lot of goodwill to keep going with this one :)

  3. Last night ABC screened a most informative doco about Hemingway – I only caught the last bit but was duly engaged. I did catch the part pertaining to Old Man and the Sea, which was quite moving.

    I haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls but I’ve read others and I have rather special feelings for Hem. Like lots of people.

  4. Nico — Oh, I heard about that doco but I don’t think I was in front of a TV that night. Yes, he’s a special author in many ways. He’s utterly different to what I normally pick up to read, but I find his style compelling all the same. I find it interesting which authors get launched into the ‘must-read’ throne.

Comments are closed.