Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: “Across The River And Into The Trees”


Across The River

During this year’s vacation, I read Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Across The River And Into The Trees”.


Colonel Richard Cantwell, age 50, is spending these days after World War II doing the things he enjoys:  duck hunting, visiting the city of Venice and making love to his girlfriend Renata, a young countess some 30 years his junior.  Constantly taking mannitol hexanitrate in order to treat his angina, he has finally admitted to himself that his time on this earth is rather limited indeed.  As curt as he is with with his driver Sgt. Jackson, that’s just how tender he is with Renata.  While the inevitable draws near, he turns reflective. 

Upon finally reuniting with Renata, their time is spent alternating between making love in his hotel room and enjoying drinks or a meal at the famed Harry’s.  Although Cantwell can’t help but occasionally being on the rough side, Renata overlooks it and implores him to show his tenderness.  During their time together, Cantwell can’t help but to reminisce about his years in the war, sharing with Renata stories about the battles he’s fought and the men he’s lost. 

After an early morning of somewhat satisfying duck hunting with some acquaintances, Cantwell has his driver take him back into town.  But by now, all is not well with the colonel; he is starting to feel ill and fears his end may be near.  It is with this in mind, that he scribbles a note on a pad, then hands it over to Sergeant Jackson before crawling into the backseat of his Army-issued vehicle; mysteriously, he instructs Jackson to carry out the orders he set forth in the note in the event of his demise.  After a while, Jackson pulls the car over and reads the note, then dutifully proceeds back to town.    


The problem with reading some of Hemingway’s works – if indeed it can truly be characterized as a problem – is that very often, you won’t quite get it on a first reading.  Instead, it will require at least two readings before certain things start to sink in a bit.  During the initial reading, you are simply trying to absorb the events and allow the story to wash over you.  Because of the fact that very little is revealed to the reader – at least upon the first pass – this has come to be known as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing. 

Part of my problem with the book is how excruciatingly slowly it starts; it is not at all hard to wind up losing patience with the book or its author or both.  The ambiguity can also drive you into something of an apoplectic fit; you begin to wonder exactly what it is that you’re missing about the story you’re reading.  Why did Cantwell get demoted from General to Colonel?  Was it because he lost men in battle?  Why is Renata so patient when it comes to listening to her lover’s old war stories?  Is she really interested or is she merely a figment of Cantwell’s imagination? 

The character of Renata is another problem in the book; Renata is not one of Hemingway’s best female characters.  It is difficult to see a fully-formed human being there; while some may attribute this to the fact that she is a teenager, it would seem that the author was so consumed with his protagonist that he lacked the interest, ability or passion to make Cantwell’s love interest a well-drawn character.  Renata is more two-dimensional than three-dimensional; she’s like a cardboard cut-out, which is somewhat fitting, since Cantwell is given a portrait of her that he winds up trying to have a conversation with late one night in his hotel room.   




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