across the river and into the trees

I thought this article about Hemingway was interesting: “Hemingway’s Consolations

It requires registration or a subscription, but the part that struck me the most is a footnote which didn’t make it into the online version anyway:

… Hemingway is far better on hating one’s wife than on loving her. His depictions of amorous couples are numerous — they appear in A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the posthumously published Garden of Eden — with results mostly ranging from insipid to wretched. An alternate key to understanding which of Hemingway’s works have endured might be: only the ones with unhappy couples or unrequited lovers.

That really clicked for me, I must admit. Sometimes when something about a novel (or a movie or TV show) doesn’t move me at all, I wonder if it’s me, so it can be nice to get confirmation that I’m not alone. Thinking back on Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, for example, she seemed like a real person, living a life, in a way the Renata in Across the River and into the Trees doesn’t. I haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls in years (and I have no desire to read it again), but I remember the romance in that book as being lousy.

On the subject of Hemingway, here are my two ideas — my two initial ideas, at least — about Across the River and into the Trees:

In the beginning and ending sections of the book (the good parts), we see Colonel Richard Cantwell, a career soldier who served in both World Wars. We see his rough way of acting and speaking (exacerbated now by his knowledge that he is going to die very soon), and we see his eagerness not to be this way anymore, not to be “brutal” — in general and specifically with his lover, Renata, an Italian countess who is much, much younger than he is.

We see this very clearly during the (more or less endless) middle part of the book, where he is spending time with Renata. By the way, the sentence above about Hemingway’s writing of amorous couples doesn’t mention this book (possibly most people who have read it want to forget then entire experience), but “with results mostly ranging from insipid to wretched” applies here.

Across the River is in third person, but mostly third person limited, so we see Colonel Cantwell’s actions and thoughts, and his ideas about how others see him.

But, every so often, and sometimes only for a phrase, the camera swivels around and shows us how the men around him (and, once, Renata) actually view him.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Not that Cantwell always learns how the others see him, but we do. It’s quick, as I say, and sometimes easy to miss, but it’s there.

For at least one man — the poler who is piloting the colonel’s boat and scattering his decoys — his antipathy toward the colonel turns out to have nothing to do with Cantwell’s actions and his words, nothing to do with how “brutal” he is or is not being at any given moment, and everything to do with his U.S. Army uniform.

We can try to improve how we treat people, but a lot of how people react to anything or anybody has to do with other things in their lives.

My current opinion is that this would have made a really good short story.

My second idea is that the colonel spends a lot of his last hours with Renata telling her all sorts of stories about the battles he’s fought in his career. Renata encourages him periodically, usually after he says that he’s sure he’s boring her, but the colonel obviously wants to share this information, as much as he can. He knows that he is about to die, and this is his only chance to pass these things along to someone else.

I was less sure about this interpretation than the first one, but then I found out that one of Hemingway’s early ideas for this book’s title was “The Things That I Know.”

Other posts where I talked about this book:

  1. Death in a Box
  2. Getting Deeper into the Trees
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