There is a certain amount of nostalgia and some sadness in Hemingway’s best novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. How could there not be? It’s about the Spanish Civil War; that most terrible of events pitting the bad against the equally bad. The story is simple, the tale of an Englishman (actually an American, but we don’t know that till the end) who ends up fighting on the side of the communists (republicans?) against the fascist (monarchist? religionist?) government. His task? Blow up a bridge. His conflict? A sudden and growing romance with Maria; some existential conflicts about the meaning of the war; the desire to die a purposeful death that is also painless.
So shoot me, but I’ve now read quiet a lot of Hemingway (including A Movable Feast) and I think the challenge I have with his writing is that he is not an intellectual. His books are simple and straightforward, without nuance or any sense of understanding or any real exploration of the inner lives of the characters. His style is clean and crisp, built on simplicity and momentum not the infinite digressions that usually accompany literary fiction. There are many people who like this – I am just not one of them.
The closest Hemingway gets in this novel to giving Jordan a personality is the last four pages of the book where, after an accident that leaves him unable to move, he is providing cover for his fellow revolutionaries and waiting to die. Those pages are to a degree poetic and I found them charming, if the end somewhat abrupt and without resolution. The rest I found rather tedious.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this novel. Spain is a lovely place, full of history and significance and the civil war which rent asunder her social fabric in a time not too long ago was noteworthy in its violence and brutality but also in it being one without good guys. We are accustomed, we from America, to thinking of civil wars as an epic effort of violence to expunge that which is vicious from society; our own expiatory war the prime example – the violence which atoned once and for all time of the ‘original sin’ of slavery. The Spanish Civil War had nothing of this narrative. The fascists – who can like them? Backed by Hitler, wicked and violent and thick. But the communists, with their political project dripping with blood and a slavery more wicked than even our own? Well, those obviously aren’t the good guys either. Hemingway doesn’t go into any of this in the novel, at least in any meaningful way. There is nothing political (or at least intellectually so) about Hemingway’s writing that would make one believe he considered the implications of a war without heroes. But the novel does let us think about war; about its consequences; and above all it reminds us that it is to be avoided. This is not a novel that glorifies war, and for that – at least – I am grateful.