Thursday, February 02, 2012

Book Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway

Taking place over three days during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls follows an American and a loose band of guerrillas as they prepare to play their part in a coming assault on the fascists. Three days is a short amount of time, especially for Hemingway. Compared to the rollicking, faster-paced novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, the pacing here leads the author to divergences, wanderings that slow the pace. Three days is long enough, though, for the American to fall in love, to hear stories of brutality rivaling a Cormac McCarthy novel, and still maintain a tension that keeps us reading on.

Self-reflection takes place throughout the novel and it isn't the author's strong-suit. Hemingway attempts something that is the antithesis of what what we consider to be Hemingway. When we look at a story like "Hills Like White Elephants," we don't need the reflection to see the tension, to understand what is at stake. In the novel we have pages upon pages of the protagonist in conversation with himself. This is not to denounce self-reflection. My own writing sometimes relies more on this than the abstract unsaid. In this novel, though, it is unsuccessful.

The novel also commits a bete-noire. Some two-hundred pages in, the perspective shifts. We've spent nearly half the novel already following the American and then suddenly we slip into the perspective of a secondary character. We come back, but it happens again, this time into the perspective of a minor character in a lengthy section that takes place away from the main action. I don't know if this was a way to fill in the novel or the result of the author's boredom with the regular perspective and action. It is a pet peeve for me. I hate it in movies, too. Like in a mystery, when suddenly we see a bit of action away from the major character that tells us something that would otherwise be unknown.

There are many things for which the book has merit, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it. Not when there are better Hemingway novels to read.

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