Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Across The River And Into The Trees by Ernest Hemingway

The main body of Across the River and Into the Trees is told in flashback by the novel’s central character, Colonel Cantwell. Bookending these reminiscences is the unfolding of Cantwell’s final day before his death from a heart attack. The novel explores love, death and war, and in particular how one can ensure one’s participation in these three eternals is “good”. In Hemingway’s conception, this seems to boil down to an element of competence, which strikes me as a strangely mechanical approach to an evaluation of the strongest of emotions and the most fraught of situations. It makes for difficult reading: there is a dispassion to it that I find thoroughly offputting. Where, in other Hemingway novels, I can appreciate and even accept his particular worldview, in Across the River and Into the Trees I find the sentiments too remote, the thinking too insular. Where is the sense of community or connectedness in this novel?

Richard Cantwell is a retired American colonel returning to Venice in the 1950s after having been involved in its defence during the war. Here, he enjoys a tryst with his nineteen-year-old lover, the aristocratic Renata, and theirs is a passionate, intimate and emotional relationship. It is increasingly clear that we – and they – are coming to a closure, and the novel is imbued with a sense of the elegaic. It could be beautiful. Sadly, it isn’t.

Why? A number of reasons, I suppose. Principal among them is the character of Renata. She is not a real person. No woman like her ever existed. No nineteen-year-old ever swapped such sentiments with her fifty-something lover. Renata, her outlook, her thoughts, her speech, are more middle-aged and male than those of this middle-aged male critic. She is Cantwell duplicated. She is a construct, a blank canvas on which Hemingway has painted a wholly impossible impression of female romantic love. Hemingway doesn’t do women well, some say. Well, he certainly doesn’t do Renata well. She is a complete aberation.

Why else doesn’t it work? The repetitions. The repetitions. “Daughter.” “Tell me you love me.” “Did I tell you I love you?” “Good.” “Whatever that means.” “Don’t be rough.” Repeat the word pencil twenty times and it begins to sound ridiculous. In the same way, Hemingway’s tourette’s-like repetition of these phrases ultimately renders them meaningless.

What else? Narrative. It overstates the matter to suggest, as some critics have, that nothing happens in the novel. As Hemingway himself, rather truculently, observed: “all that happens is the defense of the lower Piave, the breakthrough in Normandy, the taking of Paris a man who loves a girl and dies.” But of these only the latter happens in real time; everything else is reported. This distances the reader, and it is difficult to see exactly what is gained by Hemingway’s technique in this novel. The central character is a bitter, angry man; the female lead is a two-dimensional cypher; at the very least, the novel needs some driving narrative to sustain interest, but that is never forthcoming.

Anything else? Yes. The glorification of competence. Everything is “good” or “right” or “well.” Everything must be satisfactory. Everything is judged in terms of competence and fitness and some value (but not values) driven sense of worth. It is a caricature of Hemingwayesque manliness. Even Renata has to be a man, to demonstrate her courage and her adaptability. "I want to be like you," she says to Cantwell at one point, completely missing the point that, to all intents and purposes, she already is him. There is a machismo about this reductive nonsense that becomes risible. It is impossible not to laugh at lines like: “ ‘Take a glass of this,’ the Colonel said, reaching accurately and well for the champagne bucket.” Accurately and well? To describe stretching for a bottle? Honestly, that would win the booby prize in a “write like Ernest Hemingway” competition. Or how about:

‘This is the best sausage. There are many other sausages, as you know. But this is the best.’

‘Then give me one-eighth of a kilo of a sausage that is highly fortifying, but is not highly seasoned.’

It is that "one-eighth of a kilo" that gives this exchange such unintended and unfortunate comic overtones. Monty Python do Ernest. Across the River and Into the Trees isn’t a bad book. It’s just not a good one. And, given Hemingway’s obsession with being “good”, there’s a bit of an irony in that, I suppose.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

Hemingway's mid-life crisis novel.

How empty it is compared with the deeper Hemingway to be found in such stories as "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio."

Great blog. I'm going to be linking to it now that I refound it among my bookmarks. Keep up the good work, Tom.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Richard, thanks for commenting. I think I also know you on the McCarthy forum (I use a different name on there). Always impressed by the eclecticism of your reading.

Yes, agree with your views on this Hem. I was re-reading Big Two-Hearted River the other day, and it's as different from this as it's possible to get.

Have you seen the Wood Allen film, Midnight in Paris? It's very, very funny. Hemingway features in it and he's an absolute hoot. Allen obviously had a lot of fun writing that dialogue, and writing it strong, and writing it well.....

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I'm afraid we saw MidNIGHT IN PARIS at a bad time. We were concerned about illness in the family. We thought the movie was a bit of a yawner, but that may have been that we just weren't in the mood.

We'll watch it again one evening soon.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, the first part did drag a bit, I have to say. And the bit going back into the time of the Moulin Rouge wasn't as good. But I did like the Hemingway era section. Kathy Bates was outstanding as Gertrude Stein.