Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
For Whom the Bell Tolls is an introspective tale of love, violence, the passionate pursuit of a cause, and the raw truths brought out in all of us when war descends. It follows Robert Jordan (a.k.a. Roberto, or sometimes, Inglés) as he infiltrates a tight-knit group of guerrilla fighters tucked away in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War. He is working for the Republic (the non-fascists, in this case) and must convince the fighters to help him blow up a bridge as part of a planned attack. The ostensible leader of the band, Pablo, turns out to be a loose cannon, and has seen too much violence to be of much use to the group. Pablo's 'woman', Pilar, is of the most strategic help to Robert, and also introduces him to Maria, a woman the fighters have taken under their wing after a series of traumatic events. Maria and Robert fall in love, and their time together, though brief, is imbued with an unparalleled intensity of affection. The plan for blowing the bridge becomes increasingly less likely to succeed due to bad luck and poor timing, but Roberto triumphs in the end. The bridge is blown, against all odds, but in the group's escape, Roberto is injured and must be left behind. Obeying Roberto's wishes, Pablo and Pilar tear Maria off of him and whisk her away. The book closes on Roberto, alone, lying in wait for the enemy to finish him off.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
This book was exquisite. Like every other Hemingway novel I've read, I didn't like it at the beginning. I didn't even like it at 200 pages. And then all of a sudden, a switch flipped, and I went from downright despising the book to falling head over heels for it. Here's a snippet from when I read my first Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, that captures this nicely:
"This book felt a bit like riding a horse that I didn't know well (or what I would imagine that would feel like) -- when I started it, we were moving forward, but sort of jerkily, and there was an unsure quality to the movement. As I settled in and continued reading, the ride became smoother, and the hesitancy started to fade away. As I finished the novel, I realized I'd been enjoying the ride for quite some time without thinking about it anymore. I guess some novels are a joyful ride all the way through, but I've found that many of the best ones (or at least the ones I enjoy the most) I have to work for a little."
If you haven't read this one, I highly recommend it. Be forewarned, though, it is quite violent, and in a way that is very different from the violence I've experienced in other books. I think it's worth it, but if you have a low tolerance for violence, it may not be for you. [Friends - I recognize the irony of this disclaimer, as someone who has the lowest tolerance for violence of everyone I know. ;)]
This post is going to be a doozy, because it deserves it. I often try to trim my posts if I feel I'm oversharing, or going on ad nauseam, but when a book is excellently crafted and packed with gems, as this one is, I go all out. Spectacular work deserves a celebration!
In case you've always wondered where that title comes from...
The title is derived from a John Donne quote (truncated below):
"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
I love the part about any man's death diminishing me because I am involved in mankind. We are, I believe, intimately connected, and our actions have repercussions for all.
Didn't your mother tell you not to curse?
Hemingway self-censors swear words, ostensibly to make sure his book could get published. The result is quite amusing. Here are a few of my favorites:
- "What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity?
- Agustín: "I un-name in the milk of their motors." Pilar: "That's something. That is really something. But really difficult of execution." haghahghagha. True, Pilar. True.
- "I obscenity in the milk of science!"
There are several exquisite reflections on killing in this book. As I mentioned, it's quite violent, as it takes place during a civil war. Part of the novel's beauty, though, is the way Hemingway treats one of the most difficult topics for us to bear as humans - killing each other, and attempting to justify it. These scenes stood out to me in particular:
- Conversation between Roberto and Anselmo, an old man whom he enlists to help blow the bridge:
Anselmo(on hunting): "I received a pleasure of pride of remembrance of the encounter with the bear on that hillside in the early spring. But of the killing of a man, who is a man as we are, there is nothing good that remains."
- "You have killed?' Robert Jordan asked in the intimacy of the dark and of their day together."
- Roberto, to himself:
"Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it.
Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."
Roberto, on drinking absinthe in the cave: "There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafés, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cité, of Foyot's old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy." This reminded me of the classic Proust madeleine scene.
No use crying over spilled beer.
I spilled some beer on the side of this book, and while I was a tad angry at first, I have come to like the aesthetic. I think if any other would appreciate me enjoying a beer during his novel and accidentally dispersing a bit on the pages, it would be Hemingway. ;)
But it's my only line!
There's a lyrical quality to Hemingway's writing in this novel that feels more advanced than in his previous works. This is my favorite line.
Pilar: "Do you know what you are going to say to El Sordo?"
Pilar: "Because he is a man of few words unlike me and thee and this sentimental menagerie."
Pablo y Pilar
Pablo and Pilar are quite the odd couple, and Pilar is a great character. Here's a smattering of quotes to give you the flavor of their relationship:
The gypsy, to Roberto: "If you think Pablo is ugly you should see his woman."
Pablo: "I am afraid to die, Pilar. Tengo miedo de morir. Dost thou understand?"
Pilar: "Then get out of bed. There is not room in one bed for me and thee and thy fear all together."
hahgahga. nice, Pilar. you tell him!
Pilar, of Pablo - "He wants to stay in the eddy of his own weakness. But the river is rising."
Pilar, on herself: "Life is very curious. I would have made a good man, but I am all woman and all ugly."
Maria y Roberto
Maria, to Roberto, on kissing: "Where do the noses go? I always wondered where the noses would go." I always wondered that, too, Maria!
The tenderness of their relationship is almost painful in its perfection:
"They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of his pistol in his holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back and, in his hand, he felt the girl's hand firm and strong, the fingers locked in his. From it, from the palm of her hand against the palm of his, from their fingers locked together, and from her wrist across his wrist something came from her hand, her fingers and her wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glassy surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one's lip, or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone, but that was so strengthened, so intensified, and made so urgent, so aching and so strong by the hard pressure of their fingers and the close pressed palm and wrist, that it was as though a current moved up his arm and filled his whole body with an aching hollowness of wanting.
Roberto, to Maria, on making love: "Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?"
It's hard to dance with a devil on your back.
The most difficult scene to read in the book deals with Pablo's past, and how he dispensed with the fascists in his town before they would have the chance to launch their attack.
"If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing." The violence is particularly hard to bear because the villagers are slaughtering their neighbors, their shopkeepers, their priests. I can't imagine the agony of this experience.
Pilar, on the drunk leaning on her after the ritual slaughter turns into a mob: "His breath on my neck smelled like the smell of the mob, sour, like vomit on paving stones and the smell of drunkenness, and then he put his mouth against the opening in the bars with his head over my shoulder, and shouted, 'Open up! Open!' and it was as though the mob were on my back as a devil is on your back in a dream."
Roberto, on believing in the cause
"In all that, in the fear that dries your mouth and your throat, in the smashed plaster dust and the sudden panic of a wall falling, collapsing in the flash and roar of a shellburst, clearing the gun, dragging those away who had been serving it, lying face downward and covered with rubble, your head behind the shield working on a stoppage, getting the broken case out, straightening the belt again, you now lying straight behind the shield, the gun searching the roadside again; you did the thing there was to do and knew that you were right. You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged, purging ecstasy of battle and you fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world, against all tyranny, for all the things that you believed and for the new world you had been educated into." I often wonder if there's something I would fight battles for. There are plenty of things I'll fight mental or political battles for, but I'm hard pressed to imagine a scenario where I can justify killing other humans. I know that many battles have been fought on my behalf, as an American, and I don't dispute those, or the right of my country to decide which battles are worthy. But it's different trying to imagine fighting with my own hands and weapons and bearing the personal responsibility of those actions.
Pick your poison.
There's a hilarious scene where Robert doesn't want to share his whiskey with Pablo, but he offers it anyway to be polite:
Robert: "Do you want some?"
Pablo shook his head. "I am making myself drunk with wine,' he said with dignity."
haghahgah. This reminded me of my cousin Marguerite, after her parents let her have all the candy she wanted: "I feel sick with chocolate." No, thank you. No whiskey for me. I am making myself drunk with chocolate.
Karkov, to Roberto
"I think you write absolutely truly and that is very rare.
All right. He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly, and about what he knew." This reminded me of Little Women, and Friedrich advising Jo to "Write what you know."
Tick tock, Tick tock, who's afraid of a big bad clock?
Hemingway is beautifully reflective on time and its relativity. This passage of Roberto's struck me with its sadness:
"Well, so that is what happens and what has happened and you might as well admit it and now you will never have two whole nights with her. 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.
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."
There's a freak snowstorm in the mountains, even though it's the middle of May. Beautiful though it is, it also ruins their plan for reinforcements and gets El Sordo and his band murdered. Here are some of the best bits about the little white flakes:
"By the time they reached the camp it was snowing and the flakes were dropping diagonally through the pines. They slanted through the trees, sparse at first and circling as they fell, and then, as the cold wind came driving down the mountain, they came whirling and thick and Robert Jordan stood in front of the cave in a rage and watched them."
Pablo, to Robert: You won't want to sleep outside with the snow falling.
No, he said, politely.
Pablo: No. Very cold. Very wet.
Then I should sleep in here? he asked politely.
Thanks. I'll be sleeping outside.
Pablo: In the snow?
Yes (damn your bloody, red pig-eyes and your swine-bristly swines-end of a face). In the snow. (In the utterly damned, ruinous, unexpected, slutting, defeat-conniving, bastard-cessery of the snow.)
"Now that his rage was gone he was excited by this storm as he was always by all storms. In a blizzard, a gale, a sudden line squall, a tropical storm, or a summer thunder shower in the mountains there was an excitement that came to him from no other thing. It was like the excitement of battle except that it was clean." I always get excited by storms.
"In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness."
Does death have a smell?
There are many superstitions among the fighters and Pilar tries to convince Roberto that death has a distinct smell. The descriptions are beautiful, but quite long, so I'll let you look them up if you're interested. I also loved the counter-descriptions of what life smells like:
"He smelled the odor of the pine boughs under him, the piney smell of the crushed needles and the sharper odor of the resinous sap from the cut limbs. This is the smell I love. This and fresh-cut clover, the crushed sage as you ride after cattle, wood-smoke and the burning leaves of autumn. That must be the odor of nostalgia, the smell of the smoke from the piles of raked leaves burning in the streets in the fall in Missoula. Which would you rather smell? Sweet grass the Indians used in their baskets? Smoked leather? The odor of the ground in the spring after rain? The smell of the sea as you walk through the gorse on a headland in Galicia? Or the wind from the land as you come in toward Cuba in the dark? That was the odor of cactus flowers, mimosa and the sea-grape shrubs. Or would you rather smell frying bacon in the morning when you are hungry? Or coffee in the morning? Or a Jonathan apple as you bit into it? Or a cider mill in the grinding, or bread fresh from the oven?" I'd like fresh bread from the oven, cloves, and coffee. What would you like?
Bien sûr, il faut parler Français.
One of the critical moments in the book is General Golz's response to a message from Roberto, but it's in French, and it's not translated. Boy, was I pleased that I speak French!
"Nous sommes foutus. Oui. Comme toujours. Oui. C'est dommage. Oui. It's a shame it came too late."
"No. Rien à faire. Rien. Faut pas penser. Faut accepter."
Suzy is an educated cat.
Agustín, on the anarchists not being very hygienic in their trenches: "It is not liberty not to bury the mess one makes, he thought. No animal has more liberty than the cat; but it buries the mess it makes. The cat is the best anarchist. Until they learn that from the cat I cannot respect them."
My brother-in-law is Senegalese, and in Senegal, cats aren't really house pets. They're more like street animals that you avoid at all costs. So when his family saw my cat, Suzy, sleeping happily on the couch behind Lune's head when we were Skyping with them, they started going, "Oh no! What's that cat doing there? She'll pee on the couch!" To which Lune proudly replied, "Not Suzy. She's an educated cat. She has her own bathroom." ahgahgahgahgahghaghag.
Roberto, to himself:
Roberto makes an off-handed comment about his predecessor. The comment is coarse, but I loved Roberto's inner commentary.
"'I am alive and he is dead.' Then: what's the matter with you? he thought. Is that the way to talk? Does food make you that slap happy? What are you, drunk on onions?"
I had a tough time picking a title for this blog. Here are some of the others that were in contention:
- We are nothing against such machines.
- Are there no pleasant things to speak of? Do we have to talk always of horrors?
- We exist here by a miracle.
- Should a man carry out impossible orders knowing what they lead to?
- Can you not feel my heart be your heart? Thou hast no heart but mine.
- In politics and this other the first thing is to continue to exist.
- There is no now but now.
- "I have never heard such a tone of voice. It was grayer than a morning without sunrise."
- "In a fine body there is magic."
Roberto: "In the meantime, all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it."
"'Listo', Pablo said. 'I am ready for what the day brings."
I am ready for what the day brings, and I look forward, now, finally, to Hillock! (Aka, Dune). Join me if you will!