Friday, December 20, 2013

For Whom The Bell Tolls

I was re-introduced to Hemingway in the late '70s through his first collection of short stories titled In Our Time and stunned by the power of Hemingway's prose. Though I'd never worn glasses, the stories there were like being a grandma who gets hit in the face with a fist, glasses flying across the room from the impact. I read the book continuously two and a half times through. The description of the doctor in The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife is so loaded with tension, yet achieved with sleight of hand, never once saying the guy was mad or outraged, or any such thing... it is nothing short of miraculous how he accomplishes so much with such simple prose.

I'd read Old Man and the Sea in high school, which is likely out of favor now due to his overbearing machisimo and politically incorrect attitudes. It is, however, a good read. The story did make an impression.

The first Hemingway novel that followed my return to classic literature during this period in my life was For Whom the Bell Tolls. Its setting is the Spanish Civil War. The hero's quest turns out to be a futile mission. The characters are vividly drawn, and tragic. Can one man make a difference? Robert Jordan believes he can.

The real tragedy of the Spanish Civil War was the pillaging of a section of European real estate in order to try out new war technologies. Franco fascists were not armed with Mussolini's planes for nothing. Hitler and friends watched with avid interest as the peoples were subjugated. Technology, not ideology, proved the winning variable in this situation.

In the novel, idealism and realism collide. Pablo, the local leader of a small guerilla band of anti-fascists, represents one shade of realism. Pilar, his wife, epitomizes another. Robert Jordan, the American teacher who has joined the war effort, is the idealist.

What really happened in Spain has still not fully been understood. The events of that time were significant, though soon lost in the shadows and mists of the world war that follow. Orwell lost his faith in communist socialism as a result of things he saw. Others were appalled by fascism's jackboot horrors. Picasso was, inspired by the destruction of a town called Guernica, to paint his famous statement decrying the brutality of this kind of "total war," which the U.S. continued to carry out in Viet Nam.

What follows here is an excerpt from one of Michael Mazza's reviews at amazon.com. I find reading reviews to be a mentally stimulating exercise. Movie reviews at imdb.com and the Amazon reviews are frequently cogent, insightful offerings from people who are thinking at least a little beneath the surface of things.

"Hemingway offers a grim and graphic look at the brutality of 20th century warfare. War is not glamorized or sanitized, and atrocities are described in unflinching detail. The characters explore the ethics of killing in war. As the story progresses, Hemingway skillfully peels back the layers of Jordan and other characters to reveal their psychological wounds. But the book is not all about pain and violence. In the midst of war Hemingway finds the joy and beauty that keep his characters going. He also incorporates storytelling as a powerful motif in the book; his characters share stories with each other, recall missing untold stories, or resist a story too hard to bear. In Hemingway's world storytelling is as essential a human activity as eating, fighting, and lovemaking."

Yesterday I referenced an article about Ezra Pound's influence on James Joyce, one of the most influential writers of the last century. Ernest Hemingway was another protege of Pound. According to the blog Hemingway's Paris, From Pound, Hemingway learned "to distrust adjectives" and received valuable guidance in how to compress his words into precise images. Many years later, Hemingway called Pound "a sort of saint" and said he was "the man I liked and trusted the most as critic."With a recommendation from Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford let Hemingway edit his fledgling literary magazine: The Transatlantic Review. In recommending Hemingway to Ford, Pound said "...He's an experienced journalist. He writes very good verse and he's the finest prose stylist in the world."

This "style" of stripping out adverbs and adjectives became known as Hemingway's contribution to modern literature. Yet it had origins in Pound.

That Pound was an important figure in literature is undeniable. His role in history became tragic. In a 1943 letter Hemingway stated that Pound was "obviously crazy."

I'm reminded of Nietzsche years of madness after a breakdown in Northern Italy. I'm reminded of Hemingway's paranoia later in life and ultimate suicide. I'm reminded of a line from Dylan: "I've been hit too hard, seen too much..."

Perhaps genius is a burden and we should be grateful that most of us are mere mortals.

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