Hemingway’s Mr. Death

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Margotlog: Hemingway’s Mr. Death

     Hemingway courted death all his adult life, from severe wounds as an 18-yera-old ambulance driver in World War I, Italy, through his work as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War, to heroic journalism, winning him a Bronze Star during World War II. Mr. Death appears in almost every one of his novels, from glorification of Spanish bullfighters in the ring, to the final battle between The Old Man and the Sea at the end of Hemingway’s life. I’ve read and admired A Moveable Feast, his essays about Paris during the 20s, written after the fact, but I’ve shied away from rereading Hemingway’s fiction, not wanting to replace my earlier blurred impressions with present clarity. Too macho and gory for me, I thought. How wrong I was.

     For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) depicts a young American dynamitist, Robert Jordan, who joins a Spanish partisan group to fight the Facists during the Spanish Civil War. Written after Hemingway’s own participation in the Spanish war, it breathes with psychological intensity. Robert Jordan is not only a brave and sensitive young man, but is immersed in a partisan group of great psychological complexity. Here I have been shocked out of my previous dismissal: the conflict between the exhausted leader, Pablo, and his wise, stalwart, rough mistress Pilar is as crucial to the dynamics of the story as is Robert Jordan’s falling in love with the Maria, or as Robert Jordan’s bravery in blowing up the bridge. Watching the two partisans and Jordan negotiate edging Pablo out of the leadership role creates great war drama of a Shakespearean sort: Think”Macbeth.” Though Pilar has none of Lady Macbeth’s grisley conniving. 

     One of the most compelling scenes occurs in an initial lull, just after Robert Jordan and Maria have become lovers, instigated by Pilar. As they cross and recross a high meadow after conferring with a comrade, Pilar expresses in biting honesty her loss of youth, love, beauty. She does not want to take Maria’s place in the sack of love, but to live by association, and to admire and protect what is beautiful, vibrant, and vulnerable. Pilar is as much at the heart of the novel as is Robert Jordan. So much for my notion of Hemingway’s incapacity to portray women.

     I won’t say any more about the plot because it is beautifully, intricately executed, and I want you to experience it for yourself. But the intensity of the style–that bears comment. The style is full of Hemingway’s famous short, declarative sentences, many linked by “and.” It is full of repetition of an incantatory, lyrical sort, which takes you deeper and deeper into the mysteries of how thought, sensation, and emotion, recast and examined again and again, can create an unforgettable, pulsating moment. Sometimes the intensity was too much to bear. I had to turn off the CD player and wait for another day to hear how Robert Jordan would continue, turning over the moments of love, memory, despair, and heroism.This is a very autobiographical novel: young Hemingway was wounded in the legs during World War I, and spent 6 months in a Milan hospital. So also young Robert Jordan is wounded. The pain is redeemed. It is a beautiful story.


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