After banging my head against the wall with Nietzsche over the past few weeks, I decided to tackle a novel from one of my favorites, Ernest Hemingway, for number sixty-eight. Across the River and Into the Trees is an unusual Hemingway book, in that it was largely panned by critics and is often overlooked in discussions of Hemingway’s body of work. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. Given the negative reception it received, I didn’t think it would be anywhere near the level of For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. I was wrong.
Across the River and Into the Trees is centered on 50-year-old US Army Colonel Richard Cantwell, living on post in Trieste following World War II. Cantwell is a lifelong soldier, having once been a general before being busted to Colonel following the loss of his battalion. The book opens on Cantwell setting up in a duck blind outside of Venice, preparing to hunt. He begins to reminisce about the past few days spent in Venice, and it is in this flashback that the reader meets Renata. Renata is a beautiful Venetian girl from a noble family who has fallen in love with Cantwell despite their age gap (he is 50, she is 18). Cantwell is suffering from terminal heart disease, and the two know their love is doomed. Cantwell senses that this weekend together may be their last. The narrative of their brief time together is elegiac in tone and is utterly heartbreaking. The two bid farewell, each sensing that it will be the last time. The novel returns to Cantwell in the present finishing his hunt with little success and returning to Trieste. Along the way, he suffers a series of heart attacks and dies.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Despite the bad press it received upon its release, I think it is among Hemingway’s best. It has a confessional tone that evokes the middle-aged Hemingway grappling with the thought of his own mortality and the potential diminution of his literary talents. Across the River highlights two of Hemingway’s classic themes– the unfairness of life and the inevitability of death. Cantwell finds love and apparent happiness only after he becomes aware of his own impending demise. Hemingway’s answer to that great cruelty? Hold you head up and die like a man.
The Current Count:
68 Read, 32 To Go