Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Tolls of War: Mailerian Sub-Texts in for Whom the Bell Tolls

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Tolls of War: Mailerian Sub-Texts in for Whom the Bell Tolls

Article excerpt

Hemingway's Second War: Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War

By Alex Vernon

Iowa City: University of Iowa Pres, 2011

323 pp. Paperback $29.95

AT A PARTY FOR NORMAN MAILER, I pried the author away from a covey of adoring coeds long enough to ask him how he thought Hemingway, notoriously disdainful of politics, would have responded to his protege's turn from straight fiction to the new journalism of Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. I was teaching both books and hoped to return to class armed with personal, invigorating insights from the author himself. Clearly annoyed at the distraction, Mailer replied, "What does it matter?"

Had I struck a nerve? Despite my enthusiasm for both writers, did Mailer interpret my remark as implied criticism? Never mind, if only indirectly, Alex Vernon's lively and carefully researched study of Hemingway's involvement in the Spanish Civil War reminds us of the political sophistication of both writers. Moreover, in Vernon's discussion of the way Hemingway's personal experience as a war correspondent fed and shaped the writing of For Whom the Bell Tolls, we see Hemingway anticipating the New Journalism Mailer perfected--their mutual recognition of the fictional possibilities of and strategies for merging fact and fiction. Showing us how Hemingway's dispatches verge on becoming stories, how, for instance, he employs the second person as a way of bringing the reader along for the ride, Vernon accentuates the nature of literary truth both writers were after. Vernon describes Mailer and Hemingway as writers committed to "eye-witness" standards, yet journalistic writing whose "essence" is "not information" but personal truth, "optimistic, heroic, human interest work."

Vernon's discourse unfolds in three parts: discussions of Hemingway's early participation as war correspondent, his contributions to the Republican documentaries "Spain in Flames" and "The Spanish Earth," and Hemingway's evolved, more critical thinking about the war and the Spanish people as portrayed in For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is toward the latter that all else builds that constitutes Vernon's main achievement. Much of what Vernon tells us in the early chapters is well known. (1) But his examples of Hemingway's famous understated style in the author's reports to NANA, the North American Newspaper Alliance, "paradoxically objective and subjective," show us how the demands of reporting and Hemingway's fictional gifts work as one: pithy, incongruous juxtapositions that highlight the grotesqueness of battle--soldiers so mutilated "they did not rate stretchers," a decaying corpse whose left arm hangs "stiffly in air as if even in death he tried to make fascist salute," an old woman returning home from market, "one leg suddenly detached whirling against the wall of an adjoining house," a driver lurching from his motor car, "his scalp hanging down over his eyes, to sit down on the sidewalk." Hemingway's stark, unsentimental prose shocks us with horrors in the midst of the commonplace, even, Vernon says, "seeing beauty where one shouldn't." It challenges us "as gruesome photographs do, our repulsion to the obscene violence clashing with our appreciation of its perfected expression."

Central to Hemingway's intentions in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Vernon focuses on ways the journalism anticipates and explains the humanity and art of the author's Spanish novel. Eschewing easy dualisms, Hemingway's consistent reporting of the war as brutal and savage on both sides reflects his respect and sympathy for the common soldier, regardless of allegiance. Despite his fervent support of the Republican cause, Hemingway's portrayals of the suffering and even the heroism of Franco's fascists are no less admiring than those of the Republican fallen. He wishes somebody would turn over the bodies of the working-class and poor Italian infantry who died fighting for the wrong cause, to face and commune with mother earth, the source of their lives and of their true allegiance. …

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