Enduring Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a tedious, tiring book. I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to fill you on its story. I slogged through the book anyway — with the author being so acclaimed and all. I came away unimpressed and wondering what the fuss is about.

Everything about the story is exhausting. Its characters lurch between unbelievable woodenness and Hindi movie cheesiness. The dialogue is worse. The whole thing felt like an exercise in beating the world record for eating dehydrated cardboard.

The main character made me wince every time he “appeared” in the text.  I am distracted by the thought: “what an annoying piece of writing”. Part of the problem was that the main character’s back story was unconvincing. His “inner” dialogue was unintelligible. Both never answered the basic question of why the guy is such a morose mannequin. His behaviour come across as a self absorbed moron — even though (I think) the author didn’t want it to.

The cast of supporting characters are sullied by one constant irritant that is worse than an elephant fart in a cramped elevator/lift: Hemingway’s rendering of rural Spanish. It is depicted in a caricature of Shakespearian English. Overdosed on “thou”s, “thee”s, and “thou art”s which are perpetual irritants. I’m sure (or hope) that such clunky dialogue might have some grounding in sociological / linguistic authenticity. However Hemingway gives it the credibility of an unhinged flat Earth advocate.

The dialogue is particularly annoying if you are trying to understand what the fuck is going on. You needn’t bother. A bulk of the book takes place inside or around a cave. Where the characters and the reader wait for something to happen. During ordeal the reader gets too much detail of petty bickering among the Spanish civil war guerrillas. It feels like tedious office politics in a shabby bank branch. Vast quantities of soup, coffee and wine are drunk out of bowls. There is some irrelevant digression about the juiciness of rabbit meat – not very impressive for a vegetarian. I’m sure someone will write a cook book based on the obstructive descriptions of who ate what and how.

You’d think that the sex scenes in the sleeping bag would spice things up. They might as well be droning moralistic sermons on the virtues of blandness. “Rabbit” is most certainly not a convincing term of romantic endearment in English. Even for a Hindi film. If it works in Spanish, it is further proof that Hemingway is a bad translator.

The politics of the Republican side in the Spanish civil war is loosely and carelessly mentioned. Similar to a tedious bore name dropping at a suffocating cocktail party. It is not that informative besides depicting the Spanish Republican military and their foreign supporters as a bumbling mess which you wouldn’t care about anyway.

There is at least on brief moment when Hemingway’s writings does pickup. One of the characters describes a few scenes of brutality. Which are depicted with an immediateness that’s an island amidst the rest of the book. The scenes just details something you would have already inferred about the character and doesn’t add much to the story. But it does raise some false hopes about the writing.

I usually don’t whine about disappointing books, but this one insists on a bit of venting. I can’t believe that I put myself through such a fossilised piece of writing. What a long way it is from the skilful sparse subtly of “Hills like white elephants“. I would never have made it if I hadn’t read it in the toilet at 5 minutes a day.

Sadly Hemingway has been pumped up for the last half century as a paragon of good writing. It creates an obligation to read more of his work that looms unignorable as the mushroom cloud over Hiroshina. But I have no plans to climb Kilimanjaro anytime soon. Its in the back burner with other procrastinated things.

Yes a literary themed post ahead of the week when parts of the Sri Lankan Blogosphere has a cat fight about the Galle Literary Festival 😉


9 thoughts on “Enduring Hemingway

  1. Hey C man! havent read ‘the Bell’ yet. but i read ‘A farewell to arms’ and thought it was out of this world. Hemingway is slow in this as well sure, and the inner workings of the main character largely go unexplained, but its still a master piece i thought. and perhaps exactly for that reason. We are left to ponder what kind of person he could be by merely observing his actions. a bit melodramatic as well but maybe that had something to do with EH’s drinking habit. You should try it (not the drinking, the book). see how it compares. and i’ll get my hands on ‘The bell’ and let you know wht i think.

    Also read ‘Old man and the sea’ now that was different and yeah the whole story mostly takes place on a boat. Its about this battle between an old fisherman and a big ass fish. maybe not for everybody, but his style ticks with me for some reason. probably a matter of different tastes.


  2. Haven’t read the book. And after THAT review, I dont think I’m going to even bother.

    Quite apart from Hemmingway, though, I have to commend you on your writing – love it, it just gets better 🙂

    My favourite line had to be: “However Hemingway gives it the credibility of an unhinged flat Earth advocate.”



  3. I guess tastes differ, Cerno. I enjoyed that book. It’s not the greatest of war books, but I think it’s a superb look at the way men who kill think. I’d always heard Michael Herr referred to as the ‘Hemmingway of the Vietnam War’, and though I’d read and loved ‘Dispatches’, I never understood the comparison. Their styles are so different. Then I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.


  4. “…that is worse than an elephant fart in a cramped elevator/lift”

    Heehehee…I am gonna blog-roll you for that sentence alone! =D

    I never could Hemingway, a bit too dreary for my taste.


  5. TheWhackster: hmm.. Interesting. I’ve been pushing myself to read authors whose styles I don’t necessarily like. The “Bell” book was a bit of an ordeal but I’m oddly glad that i actually read through the whole thing. Thanks for the ‘Old man and the sea’ recommendation. Will give it a go over Kilimanjaro.

    thebohemiangypsy: 😀 I’m no literary authority 🙂 of any kind but don’t write off the old man just on my ranting. But I’m glad you liked the post 🙂 The flat earth advocate sentence came out of nowhere but it felt fun.

    David: I agree – we respond to books in mysteriously different ways. Based on your recommendation and TheWhackster’s I’ll give “Hemingwayish” another trying. I think reading stuff written in styles that I usually don’t like might teach me something 🙂 And the 5 min toilet reading makes it bearable. Many thanks for the Michael Herr recommendation – would have never heard of him if it weren’t for your comment. He sounds like an interesting followup read. Also fills my requirement for reading something by a writer I haven’t heard of before 🙂

    Sabby: 😀 thank you! You ought to give the old man’s short stories a go though.


  6. cool 🙂 yeah reading stuff that your not used to can be quite an eye opener. Im just venturing into an Oscar Wilde. ‘The importance of being earnest’. looking forward to it. yeah iv a mind to try out ‘dispatches’ as well. after that interesting quote from David’s blog.


  7. Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ has no comparison amongst other Vietnam War writing. The best I can describe it is as a cultural look at the war and its participants through the veil of chemical stimulus 😉 He was also a consultant on ‘Apocalypse Now’ and the crazy photographer played by Dennis Hopper was based on Herr’s friend, British photographer Tim Page, who also btw did a book on SL.


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