Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway’s Style in For Whom the Bell Tolls

…War is but one of many circumstances which has led vast numbers of thinking men, in our times, to distrust abstractions and ideologies. And esthetic taste has evolved along parallel lines. A disposition to behaviorism in fiction has carried with it an indisposition to the use of adjectives and metaphysical terminology. Our artists in fiction have tried to see how far they can go with a mere notation of objective facts. And they have refound that, other things being equal, the best effect is that achieved with the greatest economy of means. There is, for one thing, the great gain of avoiding the obvious.
The sentiment is not wanting in Hemingway. But he finds that he can give more point to his sentiment if he does not dress it out in fine language. And all the more so because this method requires more skill than that that the facts shall be so rightly ordered that they will speak for themselves. This is a challenge to the serious artist. The undiscriminating reader may miss the intention and confuse this work with pulp. But if the thing is done with skill and subtlety, the discriminating reader will not long miss it; and he will receive a pleasure proportioned to the difficulty of the undertaking. He will recognize that this writer has what we call “style”. For style, in the larger sense, depends less on the words that are used to get an effect than on the right ordering of the words.
The matter goes beyond esthetics in the narrow sense. There is a significant remark in The Sun Also Rises. Brett is trying to tell Jake about the way she feels on having given up her Spanish lover. It is for her an edifying experience, something which in earlier times would have been called a “spiritual” experience, for it is a state of the spirit with Brett. But Jake doesn’t like to have these things dragged out into the vulgar light of words. He tries to shut her up. He says, “You’ll lose it if you talk about it.” That is a deep saying and one to which any man must respond who cares more for actual states of the spirit than for their verbal equivalents. States of the spirit are fragile and tenuous affairs; and in general we feel that the less said about them the better, lest they be cheapened and lost. Man given to spiritual vanity; and words are liars. This saying of Jake’s is as good a clue as we can find to Hemingway’s distrust of verbalism, and his reticence on the subject of spiritual states.
Hemingway’s system is an interesting one. He has got some very good results with it; and he has begotten a large shool of writers, some of whom have not good results. It represents but a small segment of the great circule of what can and has been done in the field of prose fiction. I shouldn’t want to see it erected into a dogma and occupy the whole field. I shouldn’t want to see all our storytellers bound by the self-denying ordinance to which Hemingway has bound himself. But it is, as it happens, a characteristic feature of our fiction today; and with several of our writers, like Caldwell and Steinbeck, it has proved consistent with high distinction. Like many present-day composers, they have achieved new dimensions in esthetics by taking advantage of limitations, part temperamental, part deliberately assumed, which need not be imposed on all the world.
                Hemingway would, I think, be the first to agree to this reservation. He has shown, in
For Whom the Bell Tolls, that he is capable of applying his own system without too rigid a dogmatism. His subject here – an episode from the fight for republican principles – calls for the frequent delineation of states of mind more exalted and more complex than had often been in question in his earlier work. He is obliged to distinguish types among the foreign communist leaders, and still more types among the guerilla bands in the mountains – gypsies, peasants, village workmen, women. Robert Jordan has been assigned a task of greater difficulty and danger, and the problem is, with each person he deals with: how far can he be trusted to follow orders, to understand the requirements of the situation, and to risk his life without flinching? A man’s comprehension of the issues of the war, his devotion to the Republic, are but two factors in an equation that involves his personal pride and pride of race, his tribal attitudes, his appetites, his notions of right and wrong, and a dozen other imponderables.
There is the conviction of the old man Anselmo that killing is a sin; he is a brave and staunch Republican, and he knows that killing is necessary to win the war, but he can only do Pablo, the leader of this band, who has a natural bent for killing and cruelty an has performed great services for the Republic, but who has been softened by easy life in the mountain camp and kept in line only by his inability to stand the thought of being alone; he will risk death rather than isolation. There is Fernando, stiff and conventional, who shrinks from the gross language of his comrades, but who is brave and firm in the face of danger, and can be relied on to perform whatever duty requires. There is Pablo’s woman, a good cook, formidable master of invective, jealous and passionate, but absolutely devoted to a leader she can trust, and the most tough and resolute of all the comrades. I can only hint the psychological complexities with which the young American has to deal in his Spanish aids, beginning with the vanity and anarchical independence of the Spanish character in general and including other more lovable racial traits.
And then there are the complexities of his own nature, which he must rule in the interest of his major objectives. He is a college professor and enough of an intellectual to have doubts and misgivings in regard to every value to which his soul is wedded. He is able to master his doubts by virtue of some instinct or series of sharp debates within himself. In his personal reflections and in his talk with others, states of mind are the ultimate subject throughout – ideals, loyalties, cases of conscience, and the ins and outs of human motivation. And all this gives to the Spanish novel and appreciably more intellectual cast than the staple of his writing. It is more obviously concerned throughout with attitudes and reactions throughout with attitudes and reactions which have their relevance in a system, or at any rate a complex, of ethical evaluations.
It is true that Hemingway still takes pains to keep free from abstractions and sentimental elaborations. He tries to dispense with adjectives, and particularly the sort which server to inflate the subject rather than render its substance. He tries to express his ethical values in terms of concrete objects, actions, and effects. He tries to keep his sentences simple, by reducing a train of thought to its component elements and ranging them in sequence rather than in the complicated patterns of logical subordination. But in all these matters he allows himself more latitude than formerly. He will not be hamstrung even by rules of his own making. Robert Jordan must admonish himself to keep straight in his thinking on the subject of killing men in war. “Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man’s life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people.” Here the author has allowed himself in a single sentence four separate conjunctions indicating reasons and conditions. Even in nature description there is some syntactical build-up allowed, as in his account of Jordan’s feeling about the hour of dawn. “He loved this hour of the day always and now he watched it; feeling it gray within him, as thought he were a part of the slow lightening that comes before the rising of the sun; when solid things darken and space lightens and the lights that have shone in the night go yellow and then fade as the day come.” There is in that a broader, more lingering cadence than is customary in his choppy writing, evidence of a ripeness that has come to him with his larger subject.
Not all the talk of the ragged band is in obscenities or in words of one syllable. There is much that is in a tone of dignified self-respect, and there is the formality and elevation of republican ideology. They are all agreed that they must first win the war; but there is some difference of opinion as to what should be done with the undersirables. Agustin would have them shoot the anarchists and communists “and all this canalla except the good Republicans.” But Anselmo disagrees. “That we should win this war and shoot nobody. That we should govern justly and that all should participate in the benefits according as they have striven for them. And that those who have fought against us should be educated to see their error.”
Hemingway has undertaken in this book a linguistic feat of the first magnitude. Nearly all the dialogue is supposed to be talk in Spanish rendered in English, and his effort is to suggest throughout the flavor of the native idiom. I don’t know how it will seem to a reader not trained in languages, but to me the effect is charming, picturesque and dramatic. Hemingway’s ordinary English is so American, so modern, and so uncompromisingly vernacular that it would hardly do on the tongue of these Spaniards, whose language is in many ways so much more stately and at the same time has its own vernacular idioms that are often more racy than the American equivalents. The stateliness is largely a matter of the longer and fuller words that betray the Latin origin. Of a foreign name hard to remember: “it is a name I could never dominate”. Of reinforcements from another camp: “Advising them in time, it should be possible to unite fifty rifles of a certain dependability.” “How dependable?” “Dependable within the gravity of the situation” (dentro de la gravidad).
Such expressions are well enough in their way, lending quaint dignity to the characters and reminding us of their Roman heritage. But they need to be used with discretion, as I think they are. The genius of the foreign language is heard more often in homelier and more intimate turns of idiom chosen for some raciness of flavor. Pithy understatement: “less bad” for “excellent,” or “why not?” for “yes indeed.” Crispness and succinctness with gravity: “I go down now with Anselmo”: “Go now to thy bridge”; “Thus should men move” (that is, like the owl by night the wings beating quickly, but with no noise of feathers as the bird hunts.) Pride  and elevation of feeling suggested by inverted word order: “ ‘For us will be the bridge and the battle, should there be one,’ Robert Jordan said and saying it in the dark, he felt a little theatrical but it sounded well in Spanish.” Sober precision of statement: “ ‘It should be of the highest interest,’ Anselmo said and hearing him say it honestly and clearly and with no pose, neither the English pose of understatement nor any Latin bravado, Robert Jordan thought he was very lucky to have this old man….” (But it is understatement, is it not? Referring to an enterprise in which they stand the greatest chance of giving their lives for the Republic. “It should be of the highest interest…..!”)
But let me give, with publisher’s permission, a longer passage of consecutive dialogue so that the reader may feel how much strength is lent to the situation by the native idioms lovingly cherished by Hemingway and faithfully transcribed in English. Fernando has been seriously wounded and has been borne by two of his comrades to a steep bank which they have to scale in making their escape. He asks them to leave him where he can still get in a shot or two at the enemy. Fernando is a stiff and pedantic person, but the soul of loyalty and courage.
“Leave me here,” Fernando said. “It hurts much and there is much hemorrhage inside. I feel it in the inside when I move.”
“Let us get thee up the slop,” Primitivo said. “Put thy arms around our shoulders and we will take thy legs.”
“It is inutile,” Fernando said. “Put me here behind a stone. I am as useful here as above.”
“But when we go,” Primitivo said.
“Leave me here,” Fernando said. “There is no question of my traveling with this. Thus it gives one horse more. I am very well here. Certainly they will come soon.”
“We can take thee up the hill,” the gypsy said. “Easily”.
He was, naturally, in a deadly hurry to be gone, as was Primitivo. But they had brought him this far.
“Nay,” Fernando said. “I am very well here. What passes with Eladio?”
The gypsy put his finger on his head to show where the wound had been.
“Here,” he said. “After thee. When we made the rush.”
“Leave me,” Fernando said. Anselmo could see he was suffering much. He held both hands against his groin now and put his head back against the bank, his legs straight out the bank, his legs straight out before him. His face was gray and sweating.
“Leave me now please, for a favor,” he said. His eyes were shut with pain, the edges of his lips twitching. “I find myself very well here.”
All this, of course, is incidental to Hemingway’s main prupose, which is to picture the Spanish character as exhibited in certain obscure and humble adherents of the republican cause. The Spanish character, and especially that of the Spanish peasant, has exercised for years a strong fascination on Hemingway’s imagination. And he has made the three days of this Homeric episode the framework for a magnificent delineation of his subject in all its variegated picturesqueness and strength of appeal – the pride and dignity and gravity, the grossness and cruelty, the homely earthiness and lofty gallantry, the loyalty and treachery, the passionate intensity of feeling, and the resolute devotion and idealism of the Spanish race. This is the subject for a chapter by itself. I have only space to say that Hemingway has here shown an unsuspected genius for character-creation. Most impressive of his Spanish characters are Pablo and Pilar by virtue of their heroic stature and colorfulness taken in combination with all-too-human weaknesses and contradictions which make them so appallingly unpredictable in speech and action. But the canvas is crowded with minor figures muy simpatico and nicely individualized, from the stanch and tenderhearted Anselmo to the crazy commissar Marty, the heresy-hunter of the Communist party, brief apparition of the night before the attack.
There is no space for developing this theme. Instead, I will make one further remark on the Spanish flavoring of the dialogue in which the mountain band give outward expression to their character. The reader will note the constant use in their speech of the second-person singular “thee” and “thou,” which alternate with the plural “you,” as the feeling of the speaker fluctuates between affectionate intimacy with the person addressed and a more formal and distant attitude. It is the same fluctuation that is seen in the speech of young Hamlet and Gertrude, felt now as his mother and most intimate friend and now as Queen of Denmark and party to his father’s murder. It iis true that in Shakespeare’s time the singular and plural forms were both current, and there was nothing foreign and poetic in the use of “thee” and “thou”. They were the homely forms, and “you” was for stateliness and formality. In a contemporary writer in English “thee” and “thou” are archaic, suggestive of poetry and the Bible. Hemingway is of course aware of this, and has taken deliberate advantage of it to give to his dialogue an elevation of tone which is suited to his present subject. Any reader familiar with the English Bible or with the English prayer book is certain to be affected in some degree by the solemnity of feeling associated with these now obsolete forms.
But that is not the whole story. Hemingway is surely relying on the literary culture of his readers to respond to the other range of associations established by these forms as they are still used in German and the Latin languages. Along with the Biblical solemnity go the intimacy and familiarity of the second-person singular in these languages, the  homeliness and earthiness of forms that suggest not the ceremony of aristorcratic life but the friendliness and warmth and familiarity of the plain people. This is a stroke of great subtlety and daring. Hemingway has managed by the use of this idiomatic device to link together in our feeling the secular homeliness of the republican cause with the poetry of religious sentiment. And, moreover, since “thee” and “thou” is the language of lovers, it is another means of establishing a connection between the two idealisms which run parallel through the story of Robert Jordan, the idealism of love and the idealism of political sentiment. “I love thee,” Jordan declares to Maria, “as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the right of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died.”
And so it is that, while still resisting the temptations of rhetoric, Hemingway has by no means neglected the recourses of language. By skillful use of the idioms of a foreign tongue and the poetic associations of the Bible, he has added another “dimension” to his English prose.

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