Showing posts with label Across the River and Into the Trees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Across the River and Into the Trees. Show all posts

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Across the River and Into the Trees

Two hundred years ago on May 10, T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson died of wounds sustained when Confederate soldiers mistook him for a Union Cavalry unit.  His final words were “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

In 1950, Ernest Hemingway took those words for the title of his last full-length novel, Across the River and Into the Trees.  Set in Venice in 1948, Across the River and Into the Trees recounts a weekend in the life of a 51-year old Colonel in the American Army stationed in Trieste who is dying from heart disease.  Richard Cantwell visits Venice, a city he absolutely adores, in order to spend time with his 19-year old girlfriend, Renata, a beautiful countess who adores Cantwell.

They spend the weekend walking and talking, eating and drinking, professing their love for each other repeatedly, making love, and finally saying goodbye.  They both know he is dying and they know they probably won't see each other again.  At her probing, he tells her his war story.  He had risen to the rank of 3-star General during WWII, but was demoted--neither Hemingway nor Cantwell tells why.  He is jaded, cynical but tries his best not to use "rough words" when talking with Renata--a goal that is admirable but not often attained.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book.  The dialogue is fantasyland--nobody could seriously talk the way these two characters do.  They are repetitive and wooden.  Cantwell calls Renata "Daughter" most of the time, which is more than a little creepy.  The various other characters that the couple encounters--the waiters, the maitre d'hotel, the shopkeepers--all call Cantwell, affectionately, "my Colonel."  The affectation of this simply set my teeth on edge.

However, regardless of all this, the novel works.  As so much literature set in Venice, it is elegiac.  I loved the parts in which Cantwell and Renata are moving about the city--riding in a gondola, crossing the bridges, leaning into the cold wind, admiring the sun on the water.  Like Hemingway, Cantwell's favorite haunt is Harry's Bar, near San Marco.  It is for that flavor and atmosphere that I wanted to read this book.  It's been a long time since I read anything by Hemingway and I have a grudging respect for his ability to make literature out of a fairly simple story.  

Consider that the story itself is the stuff of fantasy.  A 19-year old, rich and beautiful Contessa in love with a battle-scarred American colonel is not very believable, unless, of course, you see in Renata America's instinctual and at times conflicted love for Europe, Italy, Venice and all the beauty, history, wealth and depth that sheer bravado cannot attain.  Across the River and Into the Trees is an articulation of the relationship between a bold, brash American who swooped in and fought to liberate Europe from tyranny, but at the end of the day fades back into wilderness leaving the Old World forever on her pedestal.

Despite John O'Hara's rave review of the book in the New York Times book review, which is worth reading from a lit crit historical perspective, Across the River and Into the Trees was never a critical or commercial success.  It reads like a confessional--Dick Cantwell is too much like Hemingway for the reader not to see him as an alter ego--and Cantwell is intrinsically unlikeable.  He's a tough old bird who shoot ducks and dies.  But his story still touched my heart in the same way that Thomas Mann did in Death in Venice.  Maybe I'm a sucker for pathos, maybe Hemingway really did know what he was doing.

If I wasn't interested in reading novels set in Venice, I probably would have never read this book--it's not my favorite book of the year, or even the month, but reading it was a rich and thoughtful experience.

Ernest and Mary Hemingway on a Canal Boat in Venice.

One final note, I enjoyed reading the phrase "a moveable feast" several times in Across the River and Into the Trees, knowing that that is the title of his memoirs of his time in Paris in the 1920s, published posthumously in 1964.  

Here is the Wikipedia description of the phrase and how it relates to Hemingway:

In Christianity, a moveable feast or movable feast is a holy day – a feast day or a fast day – whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar year but moves in response to the date of Easter, the date of which varies according to a complex formula. Easter is itself a "moveable feast." 
By extension, other religions' feasts are occasionally described by the same term. In addition many countries have secular holidays that are moveable, for instance to make holidays more consecutive; the term "moveable feast" is not used in this case however. 
By metaphoric extension, the term "moveable feast" was used by Ernest Hemingway to mean the memory of a splendid place that continues to go with the moving traveler for the rest of life, after he has had the experience of it and gone away. The author used the title A Moveable Feast for his late-life memoirs of his early life as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s. He said to a friend: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

Isn't that simply a wonderful metaphor?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mailbox Monday - Oct 29

I love Mondays because I love Mailbox Monday--it's such fun to bop around the blog-o-sphere and see what everyone else is excited about reading.

Mailbox Monday is a gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house last week and explore great book blogs. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.

Visit Mailbox Monday for a list of other bloggers who have posted about their latest acquisitions.

Here's a look at my new books, which fall neatly into the two primary reading fronts I'm currently working on.

Civil War

Love and War, by John Jakes - second book in his North and South trilogy.  I'm also watching the mini-series while I'm reading these bestsellers from the 1980s.  I'm impressed with how accurate the books are and how complete a picture they paint of the Civil War era. 

Civil War Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott.  Here's how the Amazon blurb described this slender book.
Before Little Women brought her wider fame, Alcott achieved recognition for her accounts of her work as a volunteer nurse in an army hospital. Written during the winter of 1862-63, her lively dispatches revealed the desperate realities of battlefield medicine as well as the tentative first steps of women in military service.

I would like to read more first-hand accounts of the war and this seemed like a great way to start, especially given my recent foray into Alcott's life and work.


Across the River and Into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway - it's been years since I read anything by Hemingway, but I always liked him, back in my high school and college days.  I had to get this book and put it on my Classics Challenge list for 2013 when I discovered it was set in Venice.  Here's part of the Amazon blurb about this book:  

In the fall of 1948, Ernest Hemingway made his first extended visit to Italy in thirty years. His reacquaintance with Venice, a city he loved, provided the inspiration for Across the River and into the Trees, the story of Richard Cantwell, a war-ravaged American colonel stationed in Italy at the close of the Second World War, and his love for a young Italian countess. A poignant, bittersweet homage to love that overpowers reason, to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the worldweary beauty and majesty of Venice,