Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway. Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Rena Sanderson (ed.). Blowing the bridge. Essays on Hemingway and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Contributions in American Studies, number 101. Greenwood Press, 1992.
Page numbers are from the Arrow Books edition, 1994.
Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in late 1940. In 1941, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but Dr. Nicholas Butler, president of Columbia University, vetoed the proposal, and no award was given that year. Some say he claimed that the book possessed little literary merit [Burgess 83], others that he deemed the novel offensive. The latter must be true, because even university presidents must have seen that it is a masterpiece. It is one of the finest novels you can read.
A love story set against the background of a great war is a successful literary formula, as—among others—Tolstoy with War and Peace and Hemingway himself with A Farewell to Arms had already proved. With For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway easily outdoes them both. The military action is an unimportant episode of the Spanish civil war (1936-1939), which opposed the left-wing government to a right-wing rebellion lead by general Franco. Hemingway’s novel is the best testimony that this war was not "good" versus "evil", or "democracy" versus "dictatorship". Had the government won, the outcome would have been a Stalinist republic. As it lost, the outcome was an ancien régime installed for decades. Heroism and brutal atrocities were on both sides of the front line.
By the spring of 1937, Madrid was government territory (inefficiently run by communists and anarchists), while nearby Segovia and the little town of La Granja were in the fascist zone. On Monday May 31, 1937 the government launched an offensive and tried to take Segovia with three divisions. They made it to La Granja, but had to retreat on June 6, after heavy losses. The novel ends on the morning of the offensive, before noon. Three and a half days earlier, the main character, Robert Jordan (an American volunteer and Spanish professor) had crossed the front line into the fascist zone, where he is to blow a bridge immediately after the start of the offensive. To do so, he is to cooperate with an anti-fascist guerrilla band in the mountains.
Hemingway, who covered the war from Madrid, had left Spain shortly before the offensive began. Most of his information on the Spanish situation is locally gathered from first hand. Robert Jordan is copied after the American volunteer Robert Merriman, who went missing in the war and was probably captured and shot. It was very rare to be captured and live.
But wouldn’it be luxury to fight in a war some time where, when you were surrounded, you could surrender? Estamos copados. We are surrounded. That was the great panic cry of this war. Then the next thing was that you were shot; with nothing bad before if you were lucky. (p.325)Hemingway also put much of his personal self into Robert Jordan. Jordan’s father (like Hemingway’s) has committed suicide and here is how the subject is first mentioned. Pilar has learned that Jordan’s father was a ‘republican’, and doesn’t distinguish between the new heavily fought Spanish Republic and the United States, ‘which is a country of republicans’.
‘And is thy father still active in the Republic?’ Pilar asked.Only much later, Jordan speaking to himself, it turns out that this torture was not warlike, but domestic, inflicted by his wife. Hemingway hated his mother.
‘No. He is dead.’
‘Can one ask how he died?’
‘He shot himself.’
‘To avoid being tortured?’ the woman asked.
‘Yes,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘To avoid being tortured.’ (p.69-70)
Besides Jordan, other characters are also copied after life: Pilar (who survived the war), El Sordo (who died in it, though not in the way described) and Maria, a communist nurse’s aid whose father had been shot and who had been raped countless times over the months in prison. The slaughtering of fascists thrown from a cliff, recounted by Pilar, is also based on real facts. It happened in 1936, in Ronda (Malaga), and many pictures of the place can be found, taken by tourists unaware of the tragic event.
Some military leaders, like Duval and Marty, appear under their own name. The general whose pseudonym in the novel is 'Golz' operated under another pseudonym, 'Walter', in real life; his real name was Karol Swierczewski, and he was a Pole in Russian service (in Spain). Hemingway’s bridge is not unlike the Arganda bridge, which had played a crucial role in the Jarama battle (February 1937).
It is relocated, though, and some claim it is a blown-up version (pun intended) of the small bridge Puenta La Cantina over the Arroyo del Puerto del Paular, on the way from Puerto de Navacerrada to La Granja. Hemingway did tour the front line on horseback.
The novel is a masterpiece, and beautiful passages (in the literary sense) abound. Here is just one from many. The scene is based on real events that happened to the real Maria.
‘[M]y father was the Mayor of the village and an honorable man. My mother was an honorable woman and a good Catholic and they shot her with my father because of the politics of my father who was a Republican. I saw both of them shot and my father said “Viva la Republica,” when they shot him against the wall of the slaughter-house of our village.Hemingway renders the local Spanish dialect, old Castilian, by archaic English and awkward constructions meant to sound like literal translations, like And knowest thou not what it is for? (p.48) I found the effect (sometimes rather biblical) quite convincing, though there are different opinions.
‘My mother standing against the same wall said “Viva my husband who was the Mayor of this village,” and I hoped they would shoot me too and I was going to say “Viva la Republica y vivan mis padres.’ But instead there was no shooting but instead the doing of the things.
‘Listen. I will tell thee of one thing since it affects us. After the shooting at the matadero they took us, those relatives who had seen it but were not shot, back from the matadero up the steep hill into the main square of the town. Nearly all were weeping but some were numb with what they had seen and the tears had dried in them. I myself could not cry. I did not notice anything that passed for I could only see my father and my mother at the moment of the shooting and my mother saying, “Long live my husband who was Mayor of this village,” and this was in my head like a scream that would not die but kept on and on. For my mother was not a Republican and she would not say, “Viva la Republica,” but only Viva my father who lay there, on his face, by her feet.’ (p.374-375)
Some (mild) criticism.
I find it hard to believe that a mounted soldier, spearheading a disciplined cavalry unit on the move, is so far ahead that he can be shot without the shot being heard by the others. (Chapter 21.)
Spain counts in meters and kilometers, not yards and miles. It’s very unlikely that Pilar would give distances in yards (p.410), and even more unlikely that Anselmo would count in meters on p.39 and return to yards on p.45.
The general commanding the 35th division is systematically called 'Golz', except on p.264, where he appears under his ‘real pseudonym’ Walter.
He had never thought that you could know that there was a woman if there was battle; nor that any part of you could know it, or respond to it; nor that if there was a woman that she should have breasts small, round and tight against you through a shirt; nor that they, the breasts, could know about the two of them in battle. But it was true and he thought, good. That’s good. I would not have believed that and he held her to him once hard, hard, but he did not look at her, and then he slapped her where he never had slapped her and said, ‘Mount. Mount. Get on that saddle, guapa.’ (p.488)To my taste, knowledgeable breasts are not Hemingway’s finest image. And while I’m at it, Jordan’s goodbye to Maria is perhaps a little kitschy. But then, who am I?
P.S. Had German general von Lüttwitz read Hemingway's 1940 novel, he would have understood general McAuliffe's Christmas message, delivered during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 (p.483).