Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It Tolls for Thee

I wasn’t an English major so I never had a huge pile of classics assigned to me. I’ve had to catch up with them on my own time, usually knocking back a couple canonical titles a year in between reading contemporary literature. Most of them are, if not excellent stories, at least important cultural touchstones. A few, however, merit every bit of their acclaim. For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of those.

I’ve always liked Earnest Hemmingway’s pop-you-in-your-mouth prose but his work, particularly his earlier novels and stories, lack a force of purpose beneath their compelling themes and language. “Isn’t it pretty to think so,” may be one of the most incredible lines of dialogue in American literature, but The Sun Also Rises as a novel is too full of disaffection to really knock you off your feet. It makes you sit down, despair a little and then get on with other things.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, despite centering on a near hopeless mission in the middle of a dismal war, has not at all left me dispairing. It’s left me completely revived. In the novel, Hemmingway captures both the abject bleakness of war and the unstoppable human hope and determination that makes men and women achieve great feats of bravery. Even though causes are corrupt, leaders are puerile and victory is seemingly impossible, Hemmingway’s band of characters attack the world head-on, convinced that their great sacrifices for small objectives can make life better for everyone. This is not naiveté (these characters are quite aware of reality and the harshness of their circumstance). This is bravery, without cynicism.

Hemmingway himself was, of course, a miserable bastard. That shows through in a lot of his work. But at his best, here and also with The Old Man and the Sea, he reveals a powerful defiance in the face of despair. I cannot help but think that’s how Hemmingway went on being brilliant for as long as did before finally succumbing to his demons. He was miserable but he was not about to go gentle into that good night (to quote another fantastically talented, utterly despondent writer). He was going to fight and, in his best literature, he shows us that it’s that fight, not the circumstances or ultimate outcome, that matters – that makes us human.

I can only hope in my life and in my writing I can give such fight.

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