Saturday, 29 January 2011

Across the River and into the Trees [1950] by Ernest Hemingway

The 'Papa' Hemingway persona was well established by the time of the publication of Across the River and into the Trees in 1950. He has forged a bold new style, deeply American and symbolic; his adventures in Spain, the First World War, 20s Paris and the African safari were well documented; his hard living antics of heavy drinking, boxing and bull-fighting were well established. And the public were eager for more. It is not surprising then that the publication of ARIT - a pessimistic, maudlin love story of an ageing colonel and a young Italian aristocrat, empty of the expected scenes of tense action and heroism - was greeted with a mute, if not hostile response. The book still became a best seller: surely it was destined to, how could a novel by such a literary force fail to be? 

However, the critics mauled it. Here was, according to the majority of reviewers, Hemingway as a pastiche of himself. His repetitious conversations about true actions, his lovers opining that they loved each other in every other sentence, the 'silly' woman in thrall to the older man, the thinly veiled autobiography: it had all been done before and reviewers were starting to doubt the authenticity of Hemingway's studied prose. The novel was disregarded and forgotten, especially after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea two years later, a novel that seemed to encapsulate everything Hemingway had been striving for in roughly 100 pages.

ARIT has a reputation as a disappointment: a book for Hemingway enthusiasts and little more. It is a shame that this reputation still pervades because, with the exception of the dragging middle section, ARIT is perhaps Hemingway's most challenging novel, one that sees him writing in a very different perspective than before.

There is deep hurt in the novel. Colonel Cantwell - "half a century" old and visiting Venice after the end of the war - dwells upon the war and the mistakes that cost him the command and lives of his regiment. The desolation and scars of the war abound the book: figuratively in Caldwell's damaged hand and heart condition, metaphorically in the empty, wind swept shell of a wintry Venice.  Cantwell is bitter about how his fortunes were dictated not by his actions, which he cannot fault, but by the forces of power that swept the war along. The duck-shoot that bookends the novel is stunning analogy for the bombing raids and campaigns that ruined Cantwell and his regiment: a pre-planned mass movement of shooters, positioned for optimum impact, reliant on good fortune and vulnerable to the unknowable factors of nature and meddling outsiders.

Cantwell's dream are tied up in Renata, a beautiful 19 year old Venetian aristocrat . She is his, yet she is unattainable, as he knows from the outset that he is soon to die. His resignation to life and listlessness infects her:

"What is your greatest sorrow?"
"Other people's orders," he said. "What's yours?"

 The section of ARIT focusing on their affair can be tiresome. They are filled with endlessly vacuous conversations and strange in-jokes. It is here that most readers must give up or become exasperated. It is hard to get over the shallowness and ridiculousness of some of these scenes, hidden behind the laconic poetry of Hemingway's sentences, especially the excruciating sex scene that takes place in a gondola, the dirty talk replaced by the language of military maneuvers:

"My darling," he said, "My well beloved. Please"
"No. Just hold me very tight and hold the high ground, too."
The Colonel said nothing, because he was assisting, or had made an at of presence, at the only mystery that he believed in except the occasional bravery of man.
"Please don't move," the girl said. "Then move a great amount."

Hemingway is often criticised for his depiction of women. His women are often facilitators or conduits through which the heroes can reach their objectives. They seem to serve the men and dote on them. This says a lot about Hemingway's men that is not necessarily flattering. They are often sentimental and needy (Frederic Henry and his reliance on his nurse lover, Catherine) or wearying of maintaining their public shows of strength and honour, only able to admit their fears and hopes when in the warm embrace of a lover (Robert Jordan, whose cloying childlike love affair with the gypsy girl Maria contrasts with his no-nonsense guerrilla fighter image). Colonel Cantwell's relationship with Renata contains that similar neediness and reliance, but the relationship seems too far-fetched, too much the fantasy of an ageing author. Renata is rich, young, vibrant. She is intelligent and out-going, but it is hard to find a reason why she would be so besotted with Cantwell. There is a brief allusion to Renata's father and his recent death - is her relationship with Cantwell a replacement for her lost father? The suggestion is crass and Hemingway is capable of better. The relationships throughout his novels have never been as two-dimensional as they are sometimes portrayed, but here they are.

However, once the final day arrives the novel comes into it's own. If only Hemingway had started here and cut the first 100 or so pages the novel could be considered a masterpiece in miniature, a terse and compact ode to the aftermath of war. The latter half of the novel sees the lovers together, but this time Cantwell, egged on by Renata, recounts his memories of the war. Several chapters pass as he relates events back to her, explaining his colloquial English, the two of them staring at the patterns of the canal reflected onto the ceiling of their room by the sinking sun. Here are several chapters of sustained brilliance. Time stands still and peace settles on the lovers, as Cantwell remembers:

He looked up at the light on the ceiling and he was completely desperate at the remembrance of his loss of his battalions, and of individual people. He could never hope to have such a regiment, ever. He had not built it. He had inherited it. But, for a time, it had been his great joy. Now every second man in it was dead and the others nearly all were wounded. In the belly, the head, the feet or the hands, the neck, the back, the lucky buttocks, the unfortunate chest and the other places. Tree burst wounds hit men where they would never be wounded in open country. And all the wounded were wounded for life.

It is this second half that is so different to Hemingway's other works. Never before has he created a character so enveloped in the past and the results of his actions. He blames them on others, on the military bureaucracy, on ambitious men with power. His constant assertions that others caused him to lose his regiment suggest a reluctance to address a hidden truth - does he harbour guilt? Does he blame himself for the loss of so many lives? Is he sickened by the part he played? Hemingway's previous novels famously examined men's attempts at 'grace under fire' but here he shows us the depressing aftermath. It is a telling novel, one worthy of reconsideration, written by a man confronting old age and a fight with depression that would eventually consume him.

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