For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940) 440 p.
I was in the mood to read some Hemingway recently, since my indefinite overseas trip wasn’t going very well and I was consoling myself with the thought that I was, at least, doing something – I was out of Perth, in foreign countries, living off the money I’d saved and not working. I felt like reading something like-minded, about lazy expats in France in the 20’s. Unfortunately Chris was reading The Sun Also Rises himself, so I settled on For Whom The Bell Tolls, which is not like-minded at all. Rather than being about a bunch of lazy rich Americans getting drunk in France and Spain, it’s about an American dynamiteer working with a group of guerillas in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War. It’s accordingly far more serious, with characters ruminating on death and life and love, which wasn’t quite what I was going for.
Not that it’s a bad book – indeed, it’s considered one of his finest. It covers four days in the war, during which the American protagonist Robert Jordan is assigned the task of blowing up a bridge in sync with a heavy assault on fascist positions. I’ve commented before that I think Hemingway was better at writing short stories than novels, and the best bits of writing in For Whom The Bell Tolls are vignettes: Pilar describing the systematic slaughter of the fascists in her village, Jordan recalling his father’s suicide, the desparate last stand atop a hillside as a fellow band of partisans are ambushed.
It’s stronger in the second half than the first, and while there are some great moments, I didn’t absolutely love it. I think I like the idea of reading Hemingway more than actually doing so. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he’s an author everybody else loves, but whom I don’t quite seem to appreciate on the same level. I can appreciate his skill as an author, and he has several short stories I think are fantastic, but ultimately I rarely like his minimalist writing style. It works very well when describing moments of great emotional significance, but for everything else it’s just dull to read. I prefer my prose to be carefully gilded, as evidenced by my favourite author being David Mitchell.
I’ve now moved on to reading Down And Out In Paris And London, by George Orwell, which is doing a better job of satisfying my desire to be inspired to a life of living abroad, even if it means taking crummy jobs and living on the poverty line. George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were both expatriates in Paris in the 1920s and were both present at the Spanish Civil War; Hemingway as a journalist and Orwell as a combatant. And they were both internationally renowned authors by the 1950s. I wonder if they ever met?