what i'm reading (and why): for whom the bell tolls

In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Spain, I'm re-reading For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway's novel based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I haven't read Hemingway since the 1980s, and I'm enjoying it much more than I expected to.

I had mis-remembered Hemingway as a harsher, more macho voice. Maybe it was his love of bullfighting and hunting, or his personal image as a tough guy, but I was expecting bellicosity and possibly sexism. I didn't find it. The voice is warm and generous, and he writes with great sensitivity and respect, and keen insight into human motivations.

The Spanish Civil War itself is about resistance to fascism, more a story of rebellion and revolution than armies and battlefields. (I imagine the anti-fascists are more properly called counter-revolutionaries, because Franco's military takeover was a revolution.) Hemingway was part of the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigades, Americans who fought for the Spanish Republic, to try to stop the fascist threat to Europe and the world. But while For Whom the Bell Tolls is obviously sympathetic to the anti-fascists, Hemingway is still clear-eyed and unromantic about them. You see personal failings and moral dilemmas, and the many compromises a movement faces while trying to live its politics.

I also had forgotten the simple power and beauty of Hemingway's writing. It is an absolute joy to read.

It's almost impossible for a contemporary reader to appreciate how different Hemingway was in his own time, and how influential. His writing might even seem ordinary now, but in its day, it swept out the old and ushered in the new. Think of Hemingway's writing next to, say, E. M. Forster or D. H. Lawrence. All three are roughly contemporaries, but Forster and Lawrence's writing belongs to an older school of thought and style. Forster sounds more like a Victorian, while Hemingway sounds like a modern man.

Also in anticipation of Barcelona, two people have recommended Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, a literary thriller that takes place in Barcelona (and is now waiting for me at the library!). And of course we will re-watch both "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and the 1994 film "Barcelona". We love Almodovar, and have seen most of his films, but maybe we will go back to valium in the gazpacho with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown".

* * * *

I've wanted to go to Spain for many years, and this is our first major trip in a few years, as well. I'm very excited! Since I know this will be asked in comments, here's the plan.

We have a quick stop in London to see some friends, people we originally know from New York, one as far back as our Brooklyn days, who we haven't seen in a long time. After two days in London, we'll take the Eurostar train to Paris and spend two days there. On our last trip to Paris*, I vowed that whenever we were in Europe for any reason, we would go to Paris. That's a promise it will never hurt to keep.

From Paris we go to Barcelona. We'll have a good 4 or 5 days to explore Barcelona, then we'll pick up a car and do a lot of driving! The Alhambra, the great Mosque and Cathedral of Cordoba, Roman ruins, at least one pueblo blanco, the Bilbao Guggenheim and hopefully cave paintings in Basque Country, art in Madrid, and who knows what else. We have three weeks total, and about 2-1/2 weeks in Spain.

Even planning and thinking about travel makes me happy, brings a lift to my mood and my thoughts. Finishing school, good job prospects, and travel?? As George Costanza once said, I'm busting.

* Allan and I have been to Europe together in 1993 and 1998. I was in Europe pre-Allan, with my friend NN, in 1982 and 1985.


M@ said...

When I was in high school, the most encouraging comment any teacher ever gave me on my writing was that it was "Hemingwayesque". It's a very attractive style to write in, and while I don't think I still retain his style, it's true that it's one of the most remarkable modern styles there are. I taught him twice as a TA in university, and he's a lot of fun to teach, too. Interesting that you didn't sense any sexism -- that was the only topic around Hemingway when I was in grad school! I don't have any recollection of the arguments for or against but it's interesting that you didn't find him that way.

So jealous of your trip. We discussed Ronda as a possible destination on your trip, but another one to keep in mind -- since you'll be in Cordoba anyhow -- is the town of Carmona. It's worth a half-day's stop. It has a huge Roman necropolis (one of the biggest and best-preserved, IIRC), and they were just beginning to unearth a big amphitheatre there as well when we were there. It's about outside Seville, on the highway between there and Cordoba.

Then again, there are so many nice towns, the people are so great... okay, I have got to get back to Spain...

laura k said...

Re Hemingway and sexism, I also remember fierce arguments about that. His Garden of Eden was published posthumously in the early 1980s, and book critics all remarked on how sensitive it is towards women, as this was so remarkable.

For Whom the Bell Tolls features a very strong female leader, Pilar, who is not classically attractive - actually, she is considered ugly - but the hero/narrator respects and loves her, and sees her inner beauty.

He falls in love with another woman who is traumatized by torture (which clearly includes rape) and is very respectful and careful of her feelings and boundaries, tries to convince her to forgo sex and just be close to each other if that's what she needs. Her beauty is said to have been "ruined" by having her head shaved, but he doesn't see that, sees her as radiant.

Meanwhile, the men who don't see Pilar's inner beauty and power are portrayed as shallow, dumb, worthless cartoons of men. The strong and brave men declare their loyalty to Pilar. They stop seeing her as "the woman of Pedro" (her partner) and see her as their moral leader.

I actually find zero sexism in the book, and in fact, I'm describing anti-sexism.

laura k said...

Re Roman ruins, thanks for the tip!

We first thought we would go to Merida, the Spanish town with the most Roman ruins, but it's massively out of the way (west), and we're already going out of the way north to Bilbao.

I found (via Lonely Planet) Baelo Claudia, Roman ruins outside Tarifa. It's supposedly in a beautiful setting on a bay, and has, among other things, the ruins of a fish-salting factory.

I will definitely look into Carmona. Maybe it is more on our route.

We saw a lot of Roman ruins in Provence - basically that's why we were in Provence, to eat and to see ruins - and we did A LOT of both. So we don't feel the need to drive all over Spain looking for ruins. But I do want to see some.

laura k said...

When I was in high school, the most encouraging comment any teacher ever gave me on my writing was that it was "Hemingwayesque".

Also, this is very cool. A high school teacher told me something I wrote was evocative of Carl Sandburg. I don't know why he said that, but it encouraged me to write more, so it was a great thing.

johngoldfine said...

Congratulations on what sounds like a great trip.

Other than visiting friends, do you have anything special in mind for your short stay in London?

laura k said...

Thanks, John. I have only two things in mind.

One, the Dickens House has been renovated and expanded. I've been there, but as a Dickens-head, I feel I should see the new and improved version. NN was there recently, so I will ask her if it's worth another visit.

And two, when Allan and I were in London in 1998, the library part of the British Museum - with its mind-boggling collection of manuscripts, scores, etc. - was closed for reno. I was there on earlier trips and I think Allan would dig it. So I was thinking of that.

Both are maybes and not carved in stone. Do you have suggestions?

laura k said...

Two further notes on Hemingway, which maybe I should add to the post.

The sex scenes are described in a kind of otherwordly expressionism. It was probably to get around censors, necessary if the book was to be sold in the US. But the effect is very erotic and beautiful. I'm not of the "why don't they leave something to the imagination" school, I love frank erotic writing, but I find these passages in FWTBT very effective.

The book also contains some of the best exploration of the ethics of "a just war" that I've seen anywhere - the dilemmas and contradictions of people who don't believe in killing other human beings doing so, because they feel they must, but also being aware that they are losing a piece of themselves, and more importantly, aware that they are killing other ordinary men who are either following orders or doing what they believe in, not eradicating fascism... bringing into question the notion of a good war. It's explored in the plain language of a man's internal thoughts, and the occasional musings men share with each other. Quite profound.

laura k said...

If he had known how many men in history have had to use a hill to die on it would not have cheered him any for, in the moment he was passing through, men are not impressed by what has happened to other men in similar circumstances any more than a widow of one day is helped by the knowledge that other loved husbands have died. Whether one has fear of it or not, one's death is difficult to accept. Sordo had accepted it but there was no sweetness in its acceptance even at fifty-two, with three wounds and him surrounded on a hill.

He joked about it to himself but he looked at the sky and at the far mountains and he swallowed the wine and he did not want it. If one must die, he thought, and clearly one must, I can die. But I hate it.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

laura k said...

Later in the book, the part I'm reading now, Maria tells him how she witnessed her parents being shot, then about her torture and rape.

There are no details about the rape, only the context, which leads you to know that there she was raped repeatedly by many soldiers and left for dead. It's just about as detailed as it needs to be to be heartbreaking and gripping and deeply disturbing without giving details that might be voyeuristic. Masterful, and not written by a man who hated women.