Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Desert Island Novel to Read and Read and Read Again # 4: Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

[For Desert Island Book to read and read and read again #3 click Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things"]

On My Friend's Toilet
I remember when this title intimidated me. I remember when "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was not a Hemingway novel or part of a poem by John Donne (the one about no man being an island, desert or otherwise). No, the title was a Metallica song. Oh yes (teenage Jon Mendelsohn of the long hair, and three gold loop earrings; let me tell you how the girls swooned). I remember before that, when the name Ernest Hemingway was a turn off. I had that younger reader's attitude (I still sort of do, to my embarrassment): old classic = booooring.How could I know how soul stirring a guy named Ernest could be?

I don't think I would have even approached Papa Hemingway if it hadn't been for my friend Jon Cheszes (who would, as it happens, equally indirectly be the cause of my meeting the love of my life - but that's a different story).

I was at Jon's apartment from years back. Bachelor days. I was going to the bathroom, if you must know, and as one who needs to read when he does his business, I went into Jon's bedroom to find material. (Jon and I have travelled extensively together - Western Europe, Costa Rica, Quebec - so going into each others' bedrooms without permission is ok. Like the people you went to camp with. You've been through the deepest, darkest forests of Ontario with these folks. Sharing deodorant is no big deal.) Jon's desk was a bachelor's pile of crap. Match boxes and loose change and papers and books, etc. Somehow though Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," (totally worth schlepping to the island) stood out. I took that with me to the facilities and like all those who fall for Hemingway, I was more than pleased to find that not only was the writing not obtuse or pretentious but it was interesting. I read so many pages on that toilet that my legs went numb. But let's leave the old wash closet, shall we?

Don't be Stupid
Simplicity can be mistaken for stupidity. It shouldn't be. Because otherwise much of the great Beatles' work would be overlooked. What is more, where would we be without profoundly 'simple' books like "The Little Prince"?

Hem's sparse style leaves only what's absolutely necessary - as he famously said when once asked if writing was hard: Is it hard? No. Not when you're writing for yourself. But when you're writing for others, you damn straight it's hard. (Or something to that effect.) The masterful author with a style so unique he has been said to have changed modern prose forever uses the most elementary language, downright biblical language, to draw crystal clear images in the reader's mind as with "FWTBT's" opening:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

The Thickest Tension Is Rarely on the Battlefield
The novel is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway's protagonist, his hero, Robert Jordan, is an American fighting with a guerrilla unit against the fascists. He's been sent to the mountains to blow up a bridge. So yes, this is a war story. There are guns, threats, fights, bullets and horses. And don't be mistaken; the story is fraught with tension, though most of it is not played out with dynamite or guns, or even between the rebels and fascists. Rather it is the far more complex tension of supposedly civil human interaction. Much of the story takes place in the mountain cave where the rebels Robert Jordan has joined have made camp. It's here in this cave, at night, over red wine and rabbit stew, that Robert Jordan faces a real force of evil, a bastard of a character that can't unfortunately, without a good deal of context, be encapsulated in a pithy passage. You'll just have to trust me. Or read the book. I can say though that as with the Kate (Catherine) character of "East of Eden," the evil character here raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, sharpens your senses, makes you want to sharpen your claws, find better ways to protect yourself, steel yourself against one cold, bitter bastard.


The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall...In Love
What's brilliant about "FWTBT" is the way the psychologically violent scenes chokingly full of tension and hate are so artfully balanced with scenes of passionate, unafraid love.

Hemingway was a big man, in size and myth, and his great passions, bull fighting and hunting and war, are the subjects of his novels. They are, however, also just macho trimmings, the thin exterior that like late career Mickey Rourke (aka "The Wrestler") cover a blatant romantic. Like "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms" (yet another island worthy schlep) "FWTBT" is a love story; it also happens, in my opinion, to be Hem's masterpiece (you can keep "The Old Man and the Sea" - that's right; sorry; it bored me).

He was asleep in the robe ... The robe was spread on the forest floor in the lee of the rocks beyond the cave mouth ... waking, he wondered where he was ... He had one arm around the pillow.
Then he felt her hand on his shoulder and turned quickly, his right hand holding the pistol under the robe.
"Oh, it is thee," he said and dropping the pistol he reached both arms up and pulled her down ... he could feel her shivering.
"Get in," he said softly. "It is cold out there."
"No. I must not."
"Get in," he said. "And we can talk about it later."
"Get in, little rabbit," he said and kissed her on the back of the neck.


Read the book, and if you are so lucky as to get caught up inside of it, you too will get transported, out to that mountain, to sleep by night with the lovers outside the cave. Because Hemingway makes you feel. Nature, the wetness of the ground after a rain, say, or the clearness of a night sky. You taste the food Hemingway's characters eat, you drink much liquor with them. This is experiential reading at its best. It seems so simple but yet no one makes me as hungry, or as desirous of many swigs of wine, never mind one who can make me feel love, passion, fear, excitement, the whole array of human emotion in such a visceral way.

5 comments:

  1. My favourite from "For Whom the Bell Tolls":


    "Maria."
    "Yes."
    "Maria."
    "Yes."
    "Maria."
    "Oh, yes. Please."
    "Art thou not cold?"
    "Oh, no. Pull the robe over thy shoulders."
    "Maria."
    "I cannot speak."
    "Oh, Maria. Maria. Maria."

    Then afterwards, close, with the night cold outside,
    in the long warmth of the robe, her head touching
    his cheek, she lay quiet and happy against him and
    then said softly,

    "And thou?"

    -- Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, p. 263

    ReplyDelete
  2. So good, but again, like the piece i quoted, still so hard to convey to others without context. the 'thees' and 'thous' sound rather odd when you don't get that he's translating formal spanish, you know?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous6:47 PM

    I was so lucky. It is as though, you are there, and if nothing else is remembered, that exact passage lives on with you. It is just as you have said.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous6:53 PM

    I was referring to the passage as he slept outside the cave....He wrote it in such a way, that it is as though you are there, and it stays with you, years after you have read it. And, now I see that you have been as lucky as I am, because you have written that exact passage, "...on the forest floor...beyond the cave's mouth...". I almost miss it, it was so real and alive.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Indeed, anonymous. So very real, so powerful. He takes you there in a way few writers in history have ever done. Thanks for the thoughts.

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Follow mendelsohnjon on Twitter