Monday, 19 April 2021

The Bell Still Tolls

 I often dropped into the second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. I lived close by in 15 Belgrave Square, now an upscale single residence, then a warren of cold-water flats in the heart of culchie-land.  


Many Dublin neighborhoods had such a shop and they all smelled alike – fusty, dusty, and with a hint of carbolic to keep the bugs away.


I hated my day gig and was very delicate in those Gingerman days. I had discovered that just a hint of a cold, when added to a hangover, could gain you a “sick note” and some days off for recuperation. 


It was on one such break that I came across For Whom The Bell Tolls in the bookshop. I was familiar with Hemingway’s name but rarely saw his books around Dublin. Was he also banned? 


Perhaps, Spanish Civil War books were not popular with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, unless Generalissimo Franco was the hero.


It seems strange now that the Church had such a stranglehold on Irish society. Nobody really talked about it – it was just another fact of life in the land of de Valera.


The Gingerman itself had been banned, then un-banned, then banned again. I can’t even remember if there was a decent sex scene in this harmless. I guess the Church believed censorship kept a lid on Ireland’s churning cauldron of sexuality.


Forget about James Joyce, he and his Molly Bloom were a universe beyond our frigid pale; we were barely introduced to Mr. Yeats in our English classes. After all, he was Protestant and had railed about our apostolic state denying his co-religionists their right to divorce.


Little wonder that For Whom The Bell Tolls “blew my mind.” Not only was the writing clear, and incisive, it was also austerely poetic, unlike the flowery stanzas beaten into us by the Christian Brothers.


The protagonist was different too. Robert Jordan had gone to Spain to fight for the Republican cause and was on a mission to blow up a bridge.


But what was he really doing there? I suppose he was “trying to find himself.” And so was I in that musty second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. 


I eventually tracked down The Sun Also Rises, and by the time I finished that ode to the lost generation I knew my Dublin days were nearing an end. Despite its many delights the city was too isolated, too controlled, if I was to make anything of myself, I’d have to leave. The following summer I struck out for New York.


I was reminded of all this while watching the recent three-part PBS Hemingway series.


I had been lucky to be introduced to Hem in Dublin. We knew little of the macho-man or his self-created tabloid reputation. We just read his books and exulted in the clarity of his craft and vision.


By the time I arrived in New York, Hemingway was old hat. Macho was out and to say you liked the clarity and depth of his writing was to invite unmitigated scorn; one definitely had to be careful championing this Nobel winner.


So I moved on to other writers and came to know a few also. I soon recognized the corroding effect of fame, and how image often supplanted the actual person you had come to like and admire.


Norman Mailer and Lester Bangs had little in common though both were at heart kind and thoughtful men. Yet pour a couple of stiff ones into them and their outrageous public figures often took over.


Frank McCourt, on the other hand, improved with fame. The adulation he received only served to wash away our inherent Irish inferiority complex.


I thought of these three fine writers while listening to a battalion of literary people dissect Hemingway over three nights on PBS. Many made decent points, others enjoyed their 15 seconds of fame, but the one who got to the heart of Hemingway’s writing was Edna O’Brien, once banned in Ireland herself.


Her Clare shrewdness and unsparing disregard for the trappings of the literary life allowed her to get beyond the four wives, the inflated macho legend, and find Hemingway the writer.


She transported me back to that musty shop on Rathmines Road where I stumbled upon a book that truly changed my life.

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