Review by Gabriel
It’s hard to say one of your favourite authors has written an average novel. After finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, I thought I’d go on a Hemingway binge, hoping to encounter the same level of genius, and because there is something comforting about his simple, dynamic prose and hard-boiled characters. Across the River and Into the Trees was disappointing enough to halt my binge just as it was getting started. Here’s why
The story follows a fifty year old American Colonel who has been physically and emotionally crippled by war. He is living in Venice, a city he loves because he fought in its defence, but which is fraught with memories of futile campaigns and lost comrades. Everything he does is defined by battle – where he positions himself in a restaurant; how he sees a beautiful hillside as a position exposed to enemy fire; forming a mock secret society composed of other veterans who share his values.
The sole bright spot in his life is his relationship with a nineteen year old countess, Renata, his “last, true and only love.” She is rich, beautiful and wise beyond her years, and you can’t help but wonder, “What is she doing with this cantakerous old prick?”
In one of those seemingly throwaway lines that signify so much in Hemingway’s works, Renata reveals that the war claimed her father’s life, and her constant plying of the Colonel to relate his war stories takes on another dimension. This is classic Hemingway – hinting at vital character details, before finally revealing them in passing. This technique makes the reader pay attention to the text, and encourages re-reading. It is also one of the many reasons his characters seem so wonderfully complex.
Hemingway’s style has been described as the “Iceberg Method”, because so much is hidden beneath the surface. Across the River and Into the Trees is the pinnacle (stretching a metaphor?) of this method. But maybe it goes too far.
The plot can be summarised as: the Colonel drives around the countryside, and reflects on the war, and walks around Venice, and thinks about the war, and meets Renata, and talks about the war, and goes duck shooting. It might be very symbolic, but all the conflict is internal, and none of it feels of vital consequence, especially with such a beaten-down protagonist.
The writing, too, doesn’t reach the heights of Hemingway’s best works. Literature should be both evocative and engaging. This novel only occasionally draws on all the reader’s senses, and just as a battle scene is starting up, it is dropped in favour of more bad tempered musing. There are long passages written in dry military language that made my eyes glaze over, and the dialogue is often repetitive and grating as the Colonel and Renata constantly profess their love for each other.
When Across the River and Into the Trees was released, it was widely panned by critics, and I hate to agree with them. I certainly feel I missed many of its nuances, and I could certainly learn something about symbolism and subtlety if I re-read it. But then, maybe I’m just making excuses because of my big Hemingway man-crush.