For Whom the Bell Tolls: Getting to know Hemingway

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I have finally started reading the big and the scary Ernest Hemingway. I try to ignore my little stint with the guy last year, because it was only a brief encounter through The Old Man and the Sea. And who hasn’t read that? I think everyone must start with The Old Man when they first try Hemingway – after all it is probably the least intimidating piece in all of his oeuvre. I never would have even found the courage to pick the next book up, if it wasn’t for the people at 1001 Books club and their monthly attempts to read through the entire list of greatest novel of all time. Their December pick fell on For Whom the Bell Tolls and so I put a copy on hold at the library.

After about the first hundred pages in I see the familiar hand spreading words across the page like butter with the same reserve, yet generosity so characteristic of Hemingway. Why generosity? Well, everyone in the literary world knows that Hemingway was famous for his minimalist prose, and that I found true in this book as well. There are no lengthy detours to paint a beautiful landscape, no pause in the dialogue for unnecessary ‘he said/she said’. There are only the characters on the blank canvas and the truth that exists between them. However, Hemingway takes all the time in the world to develop those characters through short glimpses at their pasts, occasional careless phrases, or their reactions to the change in the relationships dynamics. In other words, it’s been over a hundred pages and not much plot has advanced.

But how does Hemingway manage to transport me so easily into the remote mountainous Spain, if his  descriptions are so limited? Because I am able to see the setting more brightly than those in much more descriptive novels. Perhaps it’s the paragraphs like this:

‘Aren’t you tired of the pines, guapa?’

[…]

‘I like the odor and the feel of the needles under foot. I like the wind in the high trees and the creaking they make against each other.’

‘You like anything […] But the pine tree makes a forest of boredom. Thou hast never known a forest of beech, nor of oak, nor of chestnut. Those are forests. In such forests each tree differs and there is character and beauty. A forest of pine trees is boredom.’

I am also trying out a new note-taking system with this book. Basically I keep a thin stack on post-its inside the back cover and a pen handy, and whenever I need to make a comment, or jot down a quote I stick a sheet on the page and do it on the spot without the need to carry an extra notebook or to vandalize the book. I also make sure to note the page number, so when it’s time to return the book to the library I can pull all my post-its out and sort them by chronological order. Later on I can transfer my organized notes to my reading journal and have that done all neat and pretty, or weed out unnecessary scribbles and use the rest for a mind map. I think this kind of system should work a little better for me than my regular routine of bringing a notebook around.

Do you have any way of keeping reading notes? How about an advice or a comment on reading Hemingway for the first time? I would love to learn about your experiences.

7 comments

  1. I love his short story collections — The Snows of Kilimanjaro and the Nick Adams stories. That’s all I’ve read by Hemingway so far, but his novels are on my list. 🙂

  2. My first experience with Hemingway was not a good one. Old Man and the Sea, during freshman year of high school. I hated it. But back then, I was not big on reading classics. I want to reread Old Man and the Sea soon. I’ve been wanting to make my way though all of Hemingway. Earlier this year, I read In Our Time. I loved it. The short stories were never more then 10 pages, so Hemingway’s method of writing was shown beautifully. Each story, straight and to the point. No fluff. I would highly recommend that if you want a quick and semi-easy Hemingway read.

  3. Hi momentomori07! I also tried one Hemingway short story for an English class I had in university (I was a business student, so I had very little exposure to literature), and I remember really liking it. I would really like to read Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories to see what it can offer.

  4. I think I remember reading about The Snows on your blog before, Mabel. It really intrigued me, so now it’s on my list too!

  5. Anonymous · ·

    Andrea, I found your blog through you finding me on Goodreads! I have really enjoyed reading some of your posts and looking at your very creative photos!

    Hemingway scares me, along with Joyce and a few others. I know I must pick up one of his books at some point. I tried to read The Sun Also Rises in my teens and that put me off him for decades. Thanks for pointing out what I need to appreciate about his style; it will certainly help! His short stories may be a good starting point.

  6. Oops, for some reason the comment form didn’t fill in my information, so I’m trying again. Sorry for the double comment!

    Andrea, I found your blog through you finding me on Goodreads! I have really enjoyed reading some of your posts and looking at your very creative photos!

    Hemingway scares me, along with Joyce and a few others. I know I must pick up one of his books at some point. I tried to read The Sun Also Rises in my teens and that put me off him for decades. Thanks for pointing out what I need to appreciate about his style; it will certainly help! His short stories may be a good starting point.

  7. Thank you Cleo! I actually found you on Goodreads because I found your wonderful blog first! I discovered quite a few great challenges I will be doing next year thanks to you. So hey, that’s awesome that you stopped by!

    Yep, Hemingway is definitely not for a teenager. I think a reader is required to learn a little patience and appreciation of slowly unfolding story to really enjoy him – something teens tend to lack (I know I did). Do give his short stories a try – apparently they are very brief and will give you a good idea what to expect, or whether you even want to continue. Good luck!

    Oh by the way, I added you blog to my blogger reader, so expect regular visits!

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