Across the River and into the Trees, by Hemingway, is a novel about a fifty year- old Colonel in the U.S. Army immediately after WWII, who comes to Venice to die. He as been there many times before, and it is where he wants to be. He falls in love with a young girl of about 17, and they have a bit of a relationship. In the end he dies while being driven out of town in his car.
I know that Hemingway is revered as a great writer, and rightfully so. But I did not like this book— it’s not his best work.
The title is a reference to the last words of Stonewall Jackson: “. . . let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” The colonel had been a general, but we are
never told why he was reduced in rank. He is beat up and has had many injuries from fighting too many wars. He’s had too many concussions and his ticker is bad. Real bad.
The story starts with the colonel duck hunting outside Venice, then backtracks to a scene where he has to pass a physical. Problem is, he’s got a back ticker, and he will not pass if he doesn’t do something. So he takes a drug to get his heart rate normal so that he can pass the exam. In other words, he cheats.
He spends a lot of time in Harry’s Bar in Venice eating and drinking. I don’t know how one person can drink that much and still be standing, but he did. Maybe he was imitating Hemingway.
My problem with the book is that the story itself was boring, and the writing not all that interesting. One thing that drove me bat-shit was that the colonel kept calling the girl “daughter.” Now, it would not have bothered me even if she were his daughter— maybe that would have kicked the story up a bit. But she was not his daughter, and whatever point Hemingway was trying to make with that was lost on me.
I’m sure that the more sophisticated and literature-educated among you will take exception with my analysis, but outside of an old man (who is not that old from where I sit) who knows he is going to die soon, who has risked his life for years fighting enemies of the state, and to whom the gods have given the gift of a young girl who has sex with him for free, in spite of his age, there is not much else to the story. And the quality of the writing does not make up for it.
Now, I am not unfamiliar with some of the issues touched on in the book. For example a man in his 50’s contemplating his rapidly approaching death, looking in the mirror seeing a beat up old man where there used to be a young face, clinging to youth either by way of music, dress or, as in the case of the colonel, a girl that could have been his granddaughter. I do not take issue with these themes, or even with the premise of the story—it could have been an excellent story. I just didn’t like the way it was executed.
It is not a long or difficult book, so reading it for yourself will not take for ever, but my advice is that if you want to read Hemingway, find a different story.
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