In For Who the Bells Tolls Hemingway takes us back to another European war: this time the Spanish Civil War. His hero, the American Robert Jordan, joins the International Brigades in the fight against Franco’s fascism and is ordered to blow up a bridge. Jordan seeks help from a group of guerrilla fighters who he stays with for a few days as the mission is prepared. What unfolds is a story of convictions – lost and found – trust in the kindness of strangers, and standing up for mankind. It is also of course (this is Hemingway after all) a great tragic love story. Framed by an opening and a closing scene that find Jordan lying on the pine-needled floor, this books contains a live time of fear and feelings over the span of just three days.
“I suppose,” thinks Robert, “it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years.”
As expected in a Hemingway novel, Robert Jordan is young and an imperfect hero, making him even more heroic. Flawed but courageous, involuntarily romantic, and unquestionably masculine. His women, well, are always madly in love, young and sweet, entirely devoted. And yet it seems too simple to write his characterisations are merely machoistic – though they certainly are to an extent. His protagonists read so authentically, their emotions become the readers’, they feel deeply and love completely in these scenes when love and sex and death are so closely connected. What Hemingway writes is nothing but real. Everything from his style to his themes makes you believe him entirely. Evocative and sobering, passionate and authentic. There is no unnecessary decorum, but nothing missing either. It is, objectively, a fantastic novel and yet my least favourite Hemingway I’ve read so far.
For Who the Bells Tolls is certainly of a greater scope than his other novels, and incredibly sombre even for Hemingway standards. Compared to A Farewell to Arms this book feels very grown up. Many called it the greatest war novel of all times, which might well be true but I might have learned that war novels are not for me. I found it a tricky read because I really wanted to enjoy it. Usually I love Hemingway’s particular kind of slowness. But in this case I could not bring up the patience. There were beautiful moments, but that did not make up for my lack of interest – this has certainly nothing to do with the quality of the book or his writing, and all with the fact that it simply is a proper war novel, which might just not be my cup of tea.
Still, I am excited to continue my Hemingway journey.