For Whom the Bell Fails

That’s way too harsh and really more about me than the book. So, let me start by saying that Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) is a fine book by almost any standard, but not the ones I apply to a writer as important and good, normally, as ErnestHemingway Hemingway.

This book had slipped by me for a long time and given its status in the canon and my love for Hemingway’s work, my expectations were high. So, that’s on me too. My expectations of some books I’ve put off—Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—can skyrocket if I already know and like the author’s work. Add a National Book Award, a Pulitzer, or in Hemingway’s case, a Nobel Prize, to the mix and I’m pretty much expecting to be unable to sleep, eat, write, watch soccer, kiss my wife, or talk to my kids until I’m done reading the book. (That never happens, but shouldn’t it feel like it could?).

And as far as Hemingway goes, this is a very Hemingway work: war, alienated protagonist, spare prose, and a lot of strong-minded yet understated characters. We start in the mix of it too: the Spanish Civil War and an ex-pat American, Robert Jordan, who is on a mission to blow up a bridge and kill some Fascists. Sounds fun even in 2019. But despite starting the reader off in the midst of this action, the first 200 pages or so kind of drag. There’s a lot of history to learn here and Hemingway seems Hell-bent on teaching us. That would be fine if, in the current time of the story, more was happening. Sure, there is a lot of downtime in war, but this is fiction, the author’s job is to shorten the down time and fill it with really compelling characters and events. Hemingway tries, to be certain, but really doesn’t hit his stride with compelling action until the last third of the book.

If you know Hemingway and know what he is about, you expect spare prose. You don’t expect under-developed characters taking center stage at times or over-developed backstory about minor characters. It’s as though Hemingway is more concerned at times with proving he was really there and he knows the culture and the history, all at the expense of pace and a compelling story.

Ultimately, the story of Robert Jordan is compelling and there are moments of both action and interiority that take your knees out from under you. And despite the under-developed characters getting too much importance, there are still plenty of well-rounded characters, Pilar comes to mind, who deepen the read and win the day.

This is not Ernest Hemingway at his best, and I would not recommend it to anyone as an introduction the author, but it is an essential, and ultimately enjoyable, read once you know and appreciate his work. For Whom the Bell Tolls may not fail for everyone, even if it did fail for me.