I’ve always respected Hemingway’s writing but never really enjoyed it (in my limited reading). For Whom the Bell Tolls, though, I enjoyed thoroughly and found much more engaging than, say, The Sun Also Rises or short stories like the heavily anthologized “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” For a Lost Generation tale of gentry drinking binges, give me Fitzgerald’s poetic Gatsby over Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises. But For Whom the Bell Tolls is a different matter. The prose has the simple directness of Sun Also Rises, but the subject matter turns on the life-and-death situations of guerilla warfare during the Spanish Civil War, giving a dramatic intensity to those clean, simple sentences. And to a large extent, Hemingway seems, like his contemporary William Carlos Williams, to want to keep the language transparent and give us the thing in itself. Indeed, he sounds as though he quotes Williams when he has his main character ponder “the confidence that” comes “from thinking back to concrete things.” This allows him to build a very powerful sense of place, both with the direct, no-nonsense descriptive sentences and with the bastardized (but accessible) English-Spanish dialogue.
But the prose is more subtle in For Whom the Bell Tolls, as Hemingway seems more sure of his voice here than he was in The Sun Also Rises. The occasional flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness shoots of prose mark this or that character with a special immediacy, with a reflective inner life. And the reflections may be terse and unadorned, but they are not simplistic philosophically. They seem fully commensurate with the life-and-death context, and indeed, from the vantage of this novel, it is the overwrought philosophies of the ivory tower that seem frivolous and simplistic.
So if it happens that you’ve read a few stories or The Sun Also Rises and found yourself less than fully engaged, you should still give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try. To each his own, but for me, the latter is more the Nobel Prize-worthy Hemingway.