4. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Okay, so this one was a bit of a blind alley. Still, blind alleys must be explored too if one wants to know one’s way around.
Burroughs read a good five or six Hemingway novels, according to Stevens’ list. He cited his short stories too.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, the tale of a man dying on the mountainside and thinking back over his life, was a particular Burroughs favourite. “Certainly the best if not the only writing that Hemingway ever did,” he said of it.
I’ve not read much Hemingway, only A Farewell to Arms. There are certain sections of Interzone (the earlier drafts of “Lee’s Journals”) that bear a passing resemblance, at least formally, to that novel. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway almost always begins a chapter with three or four passages of description before moving onto two or three pages of dialogue, written in short lines. Burroughs does the same in “Lee’s Journals”.
Yet, not everything can be a connection, and I’m wondering now whether this similarity is merely coincidence. Admittedly, I found the constant repetition of that form in A Farewell to Arms rather boring and amateurish. Hemingway might simply have leaned into that rhythm unconsciously; and so might Burroughs have.
It matches the typical rhythm of creative writing. You start with some imagery and metaphor to get yourself warmed up. Then, warm, you proceed to write more fluidly, using quicker, shorter sentences, usually with a lot more dialogue and action too.
Dickens does it a lot. The one draft wonder.
Having now read Hemingway’s longest novel, I feel I can rule him out as a major influence. Yes, his prose is punchy, but it’s not humorous like Burroughs’. His violence is more mechanical than graphic. You can tell that Hemingway is a writer who does while Burroughs is a writer who watches. Hemingway hurts people, while Burroughs gets hurt.
Constitutionally at least.
Telling the tale of a guerrilla band sent to dynamite a bridge behind enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls conveys much of the romance and abjection of warfare – particularly ideological warfare.
Hemingway pulls no punches. The Republicans are useless, feckless, in-fighting, with only the Russian Communists showing any discipline or tactics. On the fascist side, he shows us an army of naïve Catholics, of whom very few are actual fascists, and of the fascists, fewer still are murderous monsters.
But the war must continue, our protagonist assures us. And men must do their duty. Soldiers must follow orders.
It’s at parts sad, at parts dull. The action sequences are surprisingly few, but well-written nonetheless. It captures Spain, and the particularly Catholic mindset that dominated both sides; both the pro-church Falangists and the anti-clericals.
Hemingway also makes innovative use of archaicisms and “false friends” in order to convey the feeling of the Spanish language. This was my favourite part. It felt very natural.
To reproduce the complex use of the formal form (“tu”), Hemingway has his character switching between an informal “you” and a formal “thou”. Words like “raro” (meaning “strange”) are translated based on soundalike equivalents: “he is very rare, very rare indeed.” The grammar is also shuffled about to match Spanish grammars. It works surprisingly naturally, and helps convey the underlying feeling of Spanish speech, allowing the Quixoticism to feel natural, rather than extreme or irrational, as it might in plain English.
But is it an influence? Not really.
Two passages leap out.
One is lifted by Burroughs and placed into Ah Pook is Here. In it, a toreador wakes with the smell of death all over him. Those with the second sight can smell him, rancid, rotting, and stay away. They all know what lies in store for him, even though neither he himself, nor any of his fans, notice anything amiss.
Burroughs clearly likes the smell of death imagery. Stink is a potent image in his writing. He, as a boy, was described by a neighbour as “stinking like a pole cat,” and, indeed, there’s something very uncanny about stinking. The stinker can never smell themselves, but all around them can. Other people flinch from them, make excuses and leave, while the one with the stink is left confused. What’s wrong with him? His own sense refuse to tell him.
Another passage is not quoted by Burroughs but has a mildly Burroughsian quality. A story is told about Pablo, the bandit leader. It’s the outbreak of war. Pablo feels guilty after murdering the town’s guardia civil, many of them just young lads. To assuage his guilt, he rounds up the town’s fascists and has the townspeople beat them to death with flails and farming tools.
The mob’s rage, bloodthirty and insane, drunk on rage and cheap wine, reminds us of those terrible scenes in Dr Benway’s infirmary, or of amoks or assassins. I’m also reading Jean Girard’s book on sacrifices, and it resonates with his arguments as well.
Ultimately, however, there seems little to draw on here in terms of comparative reading. Tonally the two writers are totally separate. One or two passages align, but the rest of the content, form, intent, rhythm and outlook are entirely dissimilar.
When I then go back to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” knowing it to be Burroughs’ favourite, I realise that Burroughs’ enjoyment of it comes from the elements that are least Hemingwayish. It’s time-jumps, for one. It’s final mythical image of a plane ascending a mountain (a metaphor for immortality?). The distinctly unromantic way that the hero “sheds” his lover by insulting her, leaving him free to die without leaving anything behind.
These are elements that already appealed to Burroughs. He’d got them from Proust, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and Buddhism. He didn’t need to read Hemingway. He found things in one of Hemingway’s stories that he already liked, and so confirmed it to be good.
On those terms, I think we can rule out any major influence here. At least no more than is common to all twentieth-century writers in English.