Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls


It’s all Batman’s fault. I was nine, and he was fighting a new foe called ‘The Bookworm’, played by Roddy McDowell, who did book-related crimes. Most of the plot hinged on the fact that Batman not only knew the plot of For Whom the Bell Tolls and could anticipate Bookworm’s next move but knew that the title was a quotation from an Elizabethan poem and used this to thwart the cliffhanger with Robin about to be blown up. I decided that this was how Grown Ups did things (an opinion later confirmed by the Target novelisation Doctor Who and the Green Death, where the meaning and origin on ‘Serendipity’ was significant). So, I thought, when I’m a grown up I’ll read Ernest Hemingway. Look, it was the seventies.

By the eighties the reputation of Papa Hemingway was a bit dented and anyone seen reading anything of his was hounded by the Right-Ons. Alan Bennett started it by having him supposedly say when I reach for my gun I hear the word ‘Culture’. Now, despite recent attempts to make his glamorous early life seem interesting independently of anything he wrote, Hemingway’s almost vanished. You can’t imagine that Christian Bale’s Batman has ever read him (although it’s unlikely he’d read anything that isn’t an instruction manual for a laser-guided RPG.) There are lots of people who like many of his other works, especially his short stories, but can’t stand this one. Others think that this is his only halfway-decent book (‘decent’ as regards quality – there’s sex and violence and badly-translated swearing, and this is the book that gave the world ‘Did the Earth move for you?’). For all the bullfighting and drinking and the whole cult of machismo Hemingway’s followers built around him he’s an observant and deft writer. Humourless, yes; ruthlessly self-disciplined about adjectives or modifiers, undeniably; he’s the equivalent of a detox diet for anyone thinking about writing. The whole of The Old Man and the Sea has fewer adjectives than a page of Ray Bradbury. He writes like that on purpose, a necessary step after the Nineteenth Century American ‘greats’. Trouble is, this book does other things with language that aren’t as helpful, especially when trying to convey idiomatic Spanish.

The plot’s simple enough: Robert Jordan’s gone to Spain to fight in the Civil War there, so is sent to blow up a bridge to stop the Fascists getting through. One of his colleagues tries to sabotage this and the plan goes wrong. What’s more interesting is the idea that people who believe in absolutes have more in common with others who believe different absoluties than with ordinary people. Jordan moves away from adolescent, linear, black-and-white distinctions over the four days of this book. A lot else is going on under the surface of this storyline. Hemingway makes small details do the work of whole paragraphs of description and hints at insights Robert has during this intense – and probably final – few hours.

By Tat Wood