Roger W.'s Reviews > For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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May 09, 08


In two minds am I about this book.

For one, it was masterfully written and as I know is often cited as Hemingway's best novel. There were many flashbacks of various characters which were compelling glimpses into their pasts; Mr. Hemingway occasionally took us into the mind of the American protagonist, and the flow of his thoughts was perfectly captured, snippets of this and that jockeying for attention. The language too was unique. No Spanish speaker I, but it was clear to me that from the get go the stilted or artificial English was an attempt to capture the cadences or syntax of the Spanish everyone was really speaking in the book. It took me a bit to get used to this but for me it was no hindrance to the reading: I soon got used to it and its innumerable descriptions of things and people as 'rare' for example.

But then, on the other side, I could really not get interested in the characters or the story until well past the middle of the book. I just kept plodding on, waiting for that interest to come which it finally did at around the last third of the story. Quite why this was so is a mystery to me: the characters were well drawn and the descriptions evocative; one could perfectly imagine the mountain country and pine forests. Did it have to do with the fact that this was another of those stories I had seen on film first? I saw the Gary Cooper - Ingrid Bergman film version a couple years back I recall, so the basic story and characters were known to me. That really wasn't it however.

I am not of the same stuff heroes are made of. I could only partly appreciate the main character's attitudes. It wasn't his country but was a place he loved and was willing to fight and die if necessary to save it, which seemed a noble sentiment. Further, he accepted the necessity to kill others and the possibility of being killed himself to fulfill a military task he had freely taken on. He forced himself to think objectively about this and not allow his personal feelings come into play. It seemed a realistic depiction of the fine line a person would have to walk in such a situation, but when it came down to it I couldn't put myself in his shoes. Perhaps much of it was akin to the squeamishness I feel about movies with a lot of violence; I don't like films where gouts of blood spurt from bullet wounds. I can't enjoy the experience since I expect any moment to be confronted with the next outpouring of gore and guts.

This book dealt with the violence of war, its atrocities on both sides; stark thoughts of people placed in life and death situations, contrasted with the beauty of love and life and the fleeting ephemerality of the moment. And it did it in spades. But for whatever reason it was very slow in capturing my imagination and my heart.
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