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Still haunted by Hemingway
on June 2, 2000
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" was the first Hemingway I ever read. I was a high school kid in the early 1970s, working on my campus newspaper, newly graduated from Jack London but not yet ready for Jack Kerouac.
To my young eyes, it was a good action story: Robert Jordan, the passionate American teacher joins a band of armed gypsies in the Spanish Civil War. He believes one man can make a difference. The whole novel covers just 68 hours, during which Jordan must find a way to blow up a key bridge behind enemy lines. In that short time, Jordan also falls in love with Maria, a beautiful Spanish woman who has been raped by enemy soldiers. The whole spectrum of literature was refracted through the prism of my youth: Good guys and bad guys, sex and blood, life and death. For me, just a boy, the journey from abstraction to clarity was only just beginning.
Re-reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at 42 (roughly the age Hemingway was when he published it), I have lost my ability to see things clearly in black and white. My vision is blurred by irony, as I note that two enemies, the moral killer Anselmo and the sympathetic fascist Lieutenant Berrendo, utter the very same prayer. For the first time, I see that the book opens with Robert Jordan lying on the "pine-needled floor of the forest" and closes as he feels his heart pounding against the "pine needle floor of the forest"; Jordan ends as he begins, perhaps having never really moved. I certainly could never have seen at 16 how dying well might be more consequential than living well. And somehow the light has changed in the past 26 years, so that I now truly understand how the earth can move.
As a teen, I missed another crucial element, even though Vietnam was still a seeping wound. Three pivotal days in Jordan's life force him to question his own role in a futile war. He wonders if dying for a political cause might be too wasteful, but he ultimately believes that dying to save another individual is a man's most heroic act.
The book's title is taken from John Donne's celebrated poem: "No man is an Iland ... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." It was not about loneliness and aloneness, as I once had thought, but about the seamless fabric of all life: What happens to one happens to all.
I am not blind to Hemingway's flaws. He was a good short writer, and what was short was almost always better. Pilar's tale on the mountainside has been widely acclaimed as the most powerful of Hemingway's prose. Her story within a story is nothing less than a contemporary myth.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" has also been regarded as Hemingway's capitulation to critics who barked that his innovative style was too lean, and as a consciously commercial exercise for which Hollywood might (and did) pay handsomely. Robert Jordan, in so many respects, was a tragic mythical hero in the vein of Achilles, Gawain and Samson. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ranks as one of the great American war novels in a country that has always struggled with the concept of good and bad wars.