One does need no proof to know that Ernest Hemingway was one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. One needs no proof but I will still try to provide some, for as an amateur writer I want to find the key, the secret ingredient for Hemingway’s success. I have recently finished two of his books: ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘To Whom The Bell Tolls’. By the first one I was charmed, it created an insatiable hunger for more of it, and that feeling made me devour the contents of the book in two days. The latter one is the famous novel by the author; with the latter one I was more careful. While reading ‘To Whom The Bell Tolls’ I felt like a K-9 dog sniffing through each page in search of the secret ingredient. Below will be listed my findings – notes on technical aspects of Hemingway’s writing style.
First I would like to provide a brief overview of the plot of the novel. An American Robert Jordan is sent by the Republicans to blow a bridge during the Spanish Civil War. In order to accomplish this task, Robert (who is occasionally called Ingles or Roberto) joins a group of guerilla fighters, the band of Pablo. The whole novel describes the planning phase of blowing the bridge, internal politics of the guerilla group, and concludes with what happens shortly after the bridge is blown.
Because the whole thing happens in Spain, there surely was a lot of Spanish in dialogues. The challenge before the author was how to include the original language without the reader having to constantly refer to a dictionary. Hemingway’s solutions (there are several) was brilliant. First, he used commonly known words such as hombre. Second, the author wrote in such a way that the meanings of the words or phrases could be easily deduced from the context. For example, when Robert Jordan proposed some idea and one of the Spaniards started their response with Que va which was followed by a negation or disagreement with the proposed idea. Therefore, it seems obvious that the phrase means something like ‘no’ or ‘no way’. Indeed, it turned out to mean ‘yeah, sure’ in a sarcastic way which indicates disagreement. There was another word –guapa – that was used only when Robert Jordan referred to his love Maria. He also called her ‘rabbit’, so I thought that it meant the same in Spanish. However, it’s meaning turned out to be ‘beautiful’. Still, it was not very far from the truth and did not have a significant meaning in the context. The third way Hemingway introduced Spanish was by direct translation. He would write the sentence in Spanish in a dialogue, add ‘Pablo said’ and follow by writing the same or synonymous sentence in English. That way it seemed as if a character repeated the same idea in two sentences. The author employed this technique rarely and very smoothly.
The other thing that caught my attention was the usage of the original language. Needless to stress that Hemingway is the master of simplistic language. The key feature is his utterly average, if not shorter but never longer, length of sentences. Short and to the point. This gives way to another aspect of this technique – conclusions left to the reader. Because all of the sentences are coherent in linear development, the author sometimes leaves the thought for the reader to finish. For instance, in dialogues. Instead of finishing the conversation, Hemingway either describes a facial expression as a response or cuts it off completely, because he knows that the reader knows exactly what response should come in blank space.
Also related to the usage of language is the usage of transitions; more precisely, the transitions between thoughts and ‘reality’ (i.e. events in the plot). When Hemingway wants to start an inner discussion, or inner conflict, or a memory, he simply inserts something like ‘he wondered’/’he thought to himself’ at the first sentence of such thought and then goes on writing that for pages. Then, when it is time to snap back to reality, the author inserts an action that indicates a character’s presence in a scene in which he initially started. For example, Robert Jordan starts to think something about the war, does so for a couple of pages, and then returns to the initial setting with ‘he picked up a cup and looked at Maria’. Hemingway’s transitions are interestingly both sharp and smooth at the same time. Sharp because they are signalled by a very limited number of indicator verbs; smooth because a character starts thinking about something immediately relatable to the setting and slowly wanders off to some completely distinct thoughts, while the reader cannot draw a precise border between related and unrelated, and just follows through the stream of consciousness.
I want to conclude this analysis by mentioning something that Hemingway did in ‘Sun Also Rises’ and ‘To Whom The Bell Tolls’ – the discussion of bullfighting. There is a word which every Hemingway fan knows, the word which describes someone passionate and knowledgeable about something: aficionado. Ernest Hemingway was a bullfighting aficionado. Indeed, he used to be a bullfights reporter. In ‘Sun Also Rises’ it is impossible to not come across mentions of this Spanish sport, simply because the whole novel revolves around people who went on a trip to watch matadors. But in ‘To Whom The Bell Tolls’ the author also directs his love for the sport. In both cases he describes it in such a skilled way that the reader himself sees a bull and a matador right before his eyes. That is, I suppose, the greatest skill for every writer: to direct his passion about something to the reader and make him feel equally excited about it.