Top positive review
Hemingway's classic, depressing and highly romanticized novel of the Spanish Civil War
Reviewed in the United States on July 25, 2020
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" is Ernest Hemingway's famous "Spanish Civil War" novel. It was written during an exciting, idealistic period of Hemingway's life when he was traveling back and forth to Spain to cover the Civil War, traveling around the United States to raise money for the Republican (Leftist/Marxist) cause in Spain, all the while carrying on an affair behind his wife's back with the iconic feminist journalist Martha Gellhorn. To Hemingway's credit, his idealism with the Republican cause was severely punctured by the Marxist incompetence, ideological brutality, and Soviet meddling that doomed the Republican cause from the start. In other words, when faced with the harsh realities on the ground, this die-hard liberal with a soft-heart for socialists realized that the "good guys" were, in fact, not all that good and possibly their own worst enemies.
This cynical realism gave "For Whom the Bell Tolls" a good deal of its moral excellence as a novel.
Robert Jordan is a thinly disguised version of Hemingway, a Midwest college professor and engineer with Republican sympathies. He comes to Spain to lend his skills in demolition and is tasked to blow a bridge in a mountainous region inhabited by pro-Republican guerrillas. The timing of the demo job is crucial to the success of a planned Republican offensive. And Jordan, the idealist, is determined to fulfill his obligations. He is brought to a remote location where he finds among the guerrillas a young woman named Maria with whom he starts a doomed romance (the doomed romance is a common and depressing feature of most Hemingway novels). We all know how this is going to end and you can accuse me of a spoiler alert for that, but all Hemingway novels share this bleak construct. There is an internal conflict within the plot due to the suspicious behavior of the guerrilla leader, Pablo, who everyone, including Pablo's wife, Pilar, suspects of being a traitor. Pilar eventually becomes the group's moral and actual leader, a plot device that was a nod to Marth Gellhorn but which seems woefully unrealistic as it plays out. Anyway... I won't add more without giving it all away...
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a great novel, don't get me wrong. It sits alongside "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms" as the trilogy of Hemingway's classic "Lost Generation" novels. I believe all three of these novels are superior to everything else Hemingway wrote fiction-wise (including that high school staple, "The Old Man and the Sea"). They sum up all Hemingway had to say about his materialistic, death-obsessed, hedonistic, liberal-world-view. Truth is that Hemingway's trilogy of classics is the same doomed-romance story told three different ways.
Hemingway does give a good feel for life on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War... even if, in the end, it was still a largely idealized view. In fact, the guerrillas that Hemingway surrounds Robert Jordan with were often the most brutal and conflicted pawns in the Soviet side of the chess board that was the Spanish Civil War. They were known to piously genuflect and perform the sign of the cross before raiding churches to steal their gold and burn their altars. But the Nationalist side never stood a propagandist's chance in hell with telling their side of the story as long as they were receiving military aid from NAZI Germany and facing the likes of Ernest Hemingway across the public relations divide.
Highly recommended for one man's view of the Spanish Civil War, for Hemingway fans who want to focus on his good stuff, and for those in search of the great American novel. But for that third point you may need to keep looking...