Who is mediating Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls?’

Ernest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.

Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such as http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.

It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.

But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it

The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.

The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.

The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.

But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’

I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.

And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.