Mario Vargas Llosa thinks Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls his worst novel, but I, like millions of others, thought it magnificent. Vargas Llosa mocks that Hemingway compared sex with the earth moving, a dreadful cliché. But Vargas Llosa fails to acknowledge that Hemingway was probably the first to make the comparison that became a cliché. It wasn’t a cliché when Hemingway used it, and I think that he avoided that familiar trap for a writer: writing terribly about sex.
Although there are glances backwards in time, the action in For Whom the Bell Tolls, takes place over three days. During the Spanish Civil War an American volunteer arrives in a mountainous area of Spain to blow up a bridge. He must recruit local guerrillas to help him, and much of the novel comprises his wonderful conversations with those guerrillas, particularly a woman Pilar. Hemingway writes highly-engaging dialogue. One of the group he meet is a young woman who has been raped. They fall in love instantly but believably.
We know from early in the novel that the American will die, and a key message of the book is that you can live a rich, fulfilled live in three days:
“I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years; granted that your life has been full up to the time that the seventy hours start and that you have reached a certain age.”
“So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”
This is perhaps an absurdly romantic message, but I think it has truth. Certainly, there are people who live long lives that are barren, unfulfilled, lonely, and even wasted. The idea that you can live a wonderful life in a short time might perhaps be a comfort to those who have offspring who have died young. It consoles me too in my fear that climate change will make the lives of our grandchildren tough if not impossible.
The novel includes an account of a brutal episode in a particularly brutal war when the republicans of a village rounded up the fascists in the village and beat them to death one after another before throwing them over a cliff. Something like what Hemingway describes happened in Ronda, a town we have visited that has a great ravine in the middle. The account captures the special brutality of a civil war where people take out old scores on people they know but hate. May of the republicans doing the killing drink heavily and are wildly drunk by the time the orgy of violence ends. The account is an outstanding piece of writing and easily stands on its own. We don’t have it described in detail, but we know that the fascists were equally brutal when they recaptured the village.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in October 1940 as the Second World War intensified, and the novel—like A Farwell to Arms—is perhaps primarily an anti-war novel:
“In this war are many foolish things,” Agustín said. “In this war there is an idiocy without bounds.”
“Those men are not fascists. I call them so, but they are not. They are poor men as we are. They should never be fighting against us and I do not like to think of the killing.”
“In him, too, was despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers.”
I don’t think that my father, who was at the Battle of El Alamein, ever read Hemingway, although my mother did, but he would have shared Hemingway’s belief. Those who have seen war close-up do everything they can to avoid more war.
I took many quotes from this great novel.
To worry was as bad as to be afraid. It simply made things more difficult.
“To make war all you need is intelligence. But to win you need talent and material.”
The need for a truth and reconciliation commission
I think that after the war there will have to be some great penance done for the killing. If we no longer have religion after the war then I think there must be some form of civic penance organized that all may be cleansed from the killing or else we will never have a true and human basis for living. The killing is necessary, I know, but still the doing of it is very bad for a man and I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all.
70 hours to live a life
Not a lifetime, not to live together, not to have what people were always supposed to have, not at all. One night that is past, once one afternoon, one night to come; maybe. No, sir. Not time, not happiness, not fun, not children, not a house, not a bathroom, not a clean pair of pajamas, not the morning paper, not to wake up together, not to wake and know she’s there and that you’re not alone. No. None of that.
And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving some one. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it. What you have with Maria, whether it lasts just through today and a part of tomorrow, or whether it lasts for a long life is the most important thing that can happen to a human being. There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.
They were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
When you were drunk or when you committed either fornication or adultery you recognized your own personal fallibility of that so mutable substitute for the apostles’ creed, the party line.
But my guess is you will get rid of all that by writing about it, he said. Once you write it down it is all gone. It will be a good book if you can write it.
He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly, and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple.
The trouble with being rich
The old man was right. The horses made him rich and as soon as he was rich he wanted to enjoy life. Pretty soon he’ll feel bad because he can’t join the Jockey Club,
The birth of existentialism
“Yet you have killed.”
“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
“Who knows? Since we do not have God here any more, neither His Son nor the Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.”
“You have not God any more?”
“No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God, never would He have permitted what I have seen with my eyes. Let them have God.”
“They claim Him.”
“Clearly I miss Him, having been brought up in religion. But now a man must be responsible to himself.”
“Every one needs to talk to some one,” the woman said. “Before we had religion and other nonsense. Now for everyone there should be someone to whom one can speak frankly, for all the valor that one could have one becomes very alone.”
Telling the time
“Can you tell time?”
“Why not? Twelve o’clock mid-day. Hunger. Twelve o’clock midnight. Sleep. Six o’clock in the morning, hunger. Six o’clock at night, drunk. With luck. Ten o’clock at night——”
“But since I have had experiences which demonstrate that drunkenness is the same in my country. It is ugly and brutal.”
“Of all men the drunkard is the foulest. The thief when he is not stealing is like another. The extortioner does not practise in the home. The murderer when he is at home can wash his hands. But the drunkard stinks and vomits in his own bed and dissolves his organs in alcohol.”
“The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother to man because he has the same body beneath his hide, because he drinks beer, because he enjoys music and because he likes to dance.”
Prison is nothing. Prison only makes hatred. That all our enemies should learn.”
“You are not smart. You are brave. You are loyal. You have decision. You have intuition. Much decision and much heart. But you are not smart.”
The pine tree makes a forest of boredom. Thou hast never known a forest of beech, nor of oak, nor of chestnut. Those are forests. In such forests each tree differs and there is character and beauty. A forest of pine trees is boredom.
“For what are we born if not to aid one another? And to listen and say nothing is a cold enough aid.”
“He can have thee,” Pilar said and ran her finger around the lobe of the girl’s ear. “But I am very jealous.”
“But Pilar,” Maria said. “It was thee explained to me there was nothing like that between us.”
“There is always something like that,” the woman said. “There is always something like something that there should not be.”
Few people will ever talk to thee truly and no women.
“You are a very hard woman,” he told her. “No,” Pilar said. “But so simple I am very complicated.”
“That is what kills the worm that haunts us.”
“Even here one man can make a bureaucracy with his mouth.”
French, the language of diplomacy. Spanish, the language of bureaucracy.
He told it from the beginning and in order with the wonderful memory of those who cannot read or write.