Many of the books that I admired decades ago have fallen flat when I’ve returned to them. Fortunately, For Whom the Bell Tolls is not among them. It’s not perfect, but the perfect novel doesn’t exist: one must leap over innate weaknesses to understand genius.
This was — and still is (I’m about half-way through the re-read) — my favorite Hemingway novel, and includes one of my favorite fictional-female characters (a strong, metaphysical, forty-eight year old gypsy woman, Pilar: the de-facto leader of a small group of resistance guerrillas). It is set during the Spanish revolution — the prelude to WW II — and has a vein of carpe diem (and Buddhist sensibility) running through it:
“You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now…” (Robert Jordan’s thoughts; Chapter 13, p. 185)
I’ve read reviews that claim the novel moves like cold molasses, and I understand readers thinking that way, but the matrix of the story has a depth that is unusual in fiction. The characters are diverse and the tension is palpable.
Addendum, 2012-06-06: I just finished the novel and enjoyed it more than the first time I read it a couple of decades ago. Hemingway was a journalist in the Spanish Civil War, and I think he saw himself in the role of Robert Jordan. Like the ‘Englés,’ Hemingway’s father committed suicide; unfortunately, unlike Roberto, Ernest Hemingway’s demons arrived before he had the opportunity to escape his father’s paradigm.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a book about humanity: love, loyalty, cowardliness, courage, the enjoyment of the present moment, comradery, altruism, and fighting for an ideal against reason.