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Ernest Hemingway – Across the River and Into the Trees

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It’s always with a certain degree of relief that I find myself coming back to Hemingway. I’ve usually read some impossibly metaphoric and muddied work beforehand – something that is always keen to tell you what to think, expositionally, and yet the clarity of such thought being far from adequate. The relief in Hemingway, at the beginning at least, comes from knowing that I won’t be told to think a single thing – such is his discipline. I sit back and prepare for my fly on the wall status. By the end, however, I am almost crying out for explanation as I begin the hard work of putting together the true intent of his work – the myriad elements of narrative subtlety and skill.


Across the River and Into the Trees’ tells the story of a retired American colonel that has fought in the Second World War. He has returned to Venice (the town he once defended) to meet his 19 year old love and indulge his pleasure of duck shooting. He is ill, and throughout the encounter with his love Renata it is intimated that this may be their last meeting.

To speak of my pleasure first: the novel opens with a scene of boats making their way through a canal into a lagoon, breaking newly frozen ice. I am going to go into some detail here concerning the construction of the scene, in order to detail what pleases me so about this writing: Consider the opening passage:

They started two hours before daylight, and at first, it was not necessary to break the ice across the canal as other boats had gone on ahead. In each boat, in the darkness, so you could not see, but only hear him, the poler stood in the stern, with his long oar. The shooter sat on a shooting stool fastened to the top of a box that contained his lunch and shells, and the shooter’s two, or more, guns were propped against the load of wooden decoys. Somewhere, in each boat, there was a sack with one or two live mallard hens, or a hen and a drake, and in each boat there was a dog who shifted and shivered uneasily at the sound of the wings of the ducks that passed overhead in the darkness.

My pleasure comes from the simplicity of the presentation which is at once clear and distinct. I don’t have to wade through the conceptions of the author to get to the image – it is there for me. Compare it to this first passage from another novel I have read recently, ‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene:

Hale knew they meant ot murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours. WIth his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and gliterring air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west liek a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

Consider the development of the two passages. Hemingway starts with ‘They’ as the subject right at the beginning of his passage. This begins a pattern of development which remains consistent throughout – moving from ‘they’ to ‘In each boat’ to ‘The shooter and his guns’ to the other details to be found within the boats. The development is from the general encompasing subject of the other scene, to the particulars that can be found within this scene. The subject, in its generality, never changes, hence its extraordinary clarity.

This is not so with Greene. ‘Hale’ is his first subject. It then swaps to the ‘they’ to then dash about various, what I feel to be, fairly arbitrary aspects of the general scene, of which Hale is not a part. Greene is foregrounding the relationship between Hale and the Brighton scene. His text allows us to consider directly this abstract entity of relationship.

This is not something you will see in Hemingway – well, if you do, make a wish, for it is like finding a four leafed clover. Okay – after building it up as I have, I will point out some exceptions. Character’s thoughts – his characters are allowed to express perceptions of the abstract and metaphoric – and occasionally during the highest moments of his drama, although the prose is usually poetic and not expressing a normal, intellgible abstraction:

‘He kissed her then and he searched for the island, finding it and losing it and then finding it for good. For good and for bad, he thought, and for good and for all.’

Consider also the phrases in the Greene passage like: ‘glittering air’. Air in reality does not glitter – hence for Hemingway, it does not glitter. He chooses not to dress up his reality in this way for he is trying to get at its true beauty:

They made a left turn and came along the canal where the fishing boats tied up, and the Colonel looked at them and his heart was happy because of the brown nets and the wicker fish traps and the clean, beautiful lines of the boats. It’s not that they are picturesque. The hell with picturesque. They are just damned beautiful.

Bear with me because I am going to make one more comparison. This time with Peter Goldsworthy from ‘Three Dog Night':

If love is an obsessive-compulsive disorder – same driven behaviour, same altered brain state, same chemistry – then I have been ill for years. But never as sick with bliss as diseased, as now.

Sunday, mid morning, early summer. My tenth day back in Australia after ten years of work and study overseas, ten years’ hard mental labour in London. I am driving Lucy – my compulsion, my obsession – up into the Adelaide Hills for the first time. The day has taken its name to heart: a Sunday from the glory box of Sundays, a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots. Happiness rises in my throat, thick as cud; the world outside the car, wholly blue and gold, seems almost too much for my senses, too tight a squeeze.’

Now, you might read a passage like the one above and really think nothing of it – but when you compare it with the Hemingway passage the difference is really striking. After Hemingway I am left breathless reading Goldsworthy. We are trapped within the perceptions, feelings of the narrator. We are forced to put up with his confusion – we are given no room to step back from it. This is not to say that Goldsworthy is being any less deliberate here than Hemingway (though he might) – my point is just one of distinction.

I will say, however, that a writing style that mixes it up the way Goldsworthy does, intimates a possible confusion on the part of the author. But not by necessity. The narrator in Goldsworthy’s book is obviously meant to be confused.

I have spent a long time on this point of my pleasure, because I want to give the reader some idea of the rigor of Hemingway’s writing. A lot of intelligent people that I have known to have read Hemingway are quick to wonder where the substance is. The text comes across as hopelessly simple to those readers who are used to struggling through impossible abstractions in narrative. But anyone who tries to write even a small amount of text in the style of Hemingway will realise very quickly how exacting it is – how difficult it is to restrain oneself from colouring the descriptions with metaphor and abstraction (we do it so naturally). When you think of this effort extended over an entire novel, one begins to feel the awe that one feels when in the presence of a great writer.

The challange and great difficulty with Hemingway is that you are left to develop the abstractions yourself. And ultimately, it is abstractions that we use to find significance in works.

I must admit I get a little frustrated with readers who say there is nothing in Hemingway. This is generally the type of reader that likes his abstractions dished up on the plate for him a la writers like Henry James. Henry James is often touted as a writer of great subtlty. There are two meanings to subtle: 1) dificult to perceive, or 2) in having great perception. Henry James’ writing may fit the 2nd sense – but to me it does not fit the first. Hemingway’s writing is subtle in both senses of the word. Readers, often of a literary persuasion, that don’t like Hemingway, don’t see their task in reading as having to piece together the elements that form the whole. They see this as the job of the author. And if the author hasn’t done it – then they have no reason to suppose it is there at all to be done.

I should qualify this further. I am not saying here that a writer such as Henry James is not great, nor that he did not put as much effort into his prose as Hemmingway, but that his writing places the abstractions in the reader’s lap. Hence these abstract judgements are not difficult for a reader to perceive at all. Hemingway, on the other hand, worked to the principle of the iceberg. He wanted the substance of his narrative to sit beneath the surface, informing and guiding the story, without getting in the way.

In the novel I am discussing here, this methodology has the effect of putting the reader in a position that resembles that of any empirical observer. Your only advantage really is that you get the thoughts of the protagonist – but not much more. And if you think this would be a significant advantage, I’m here to say it isn’t. This is because that which is truly significant in a scene is usually something that the protagonist is not consciously aware – so you’re still left to figure it out for yourself. You have to make the call you would have to make when observing people you know, deciding their motivations and feelings – all those hidden things. And in the end, you make your call, but you never truly know for sure, because it is never given to you as a certainty.

If we consider the scene where the Colonel is being driven to Venice by the driver named Jackson. The scene seems innocent enough for the most part, the two characters discuss various issues with the youth of the driver quite salient against the maturity of the Colonel. But there is a tension that erupts in the dialogue between the two, a tension that is never overtly explained:

‘Well, there’s the Fiat garage where we leave the car,’ the Colonel said. ‘You can leave the key at the office. They don’t steal. I’ll go in the bar while you park upstairs. They ahve people that will bring the bags.’

‘Is it okay to leave your gun and shooting gear in the trunk, sir?’

‘Sure. THey don’t steal here. I told you that once.’

‘I wanted to take the necessary precaustions, sir, on your valuable property.’

‘You’re so damned noble that sometimes you stink,’ the Colonel said. ‘Get the wax out of your ears and hear what I say the first time.’

‘I heard you, sir,’ Jackson said. The Colonel looked at him contemplatively and with the old deadliness.

He sure is a mean son of a bitch, Jackson thought, and he can be so goddamn nice.

‘Get my and your bag out and park her up there and check your oil, your water and your tyres,’ the Colonel said, and walked across the oil and rubber stained cement of the entry of the bar.

As to the reason for this tension we are given some hints. Through the thoughts of the Colonel we get some idea of his attitude toward the war that has past, what he fought for, how it all makes him feel. Prior to the following passage, the Colonel has just thought some negative things concerning the French leadership and culture:

Sure, he thought, whenever you over-simplify you become unjust. Remember all the fine ones in the Resistance, remember Foch both fought and organised and remember how fine the people were. Remember your good friends and remember your deads. Remember plenty things and your best friends again and the finest people that you know. Don’t be a bitter nor a stupid. And what has that to do with soldiering as a trade? Cut it out, he told himself. You’re on a trip to have fun.

And suddenly we have a view of the Colonel as an old man struggling against the bitterness that comes from fighting for a country that wasn’t home, that didn’t appreciate your sacrifice, that makes you wonder what you did it all for – and not knowing.

When we combine this with his direct thoughts concerning Jackson, we can begin to perhaps make a leap in judgement. Prior to the following passage, the Colonel has been discussing with Jackson certain facts about the fighting:

He knew how boring any man’s war is to any other man, and he stopped talking about it. They always take it personally, he thought. No one is interested in it, abstractly, except soldiers and there are not many soldiers. You make them and the good ones are killed, and aboe they are always bucking for something so hard they enver look or listen. They are always thinking of what they ahve seen and while you are talking they are thinking of what they will say and what it may lead to in their advancement or their privilege. There was no sense boring this boy, who, for all his combat infantry-man badge, his purple heart and the other things he wore, was in no sense a soldier but only a man placed, against his will, in uniform, who had elected to remain in the army for his own ends.

The resentment is never directly stated – but when you combine the above together with the dialogue that I have also quoted its hard to deny that it is there – that is ultimately what is driving the Colonel’s emotions, even as he fights against it (he repeatedly admonishes himself to stop ‘riding’ the driver).

The economy of presentation is profound. Within about 25 pages of text we have been presented, in concrete terms, all the resentment age has of youth – that it does not appreciate what has been, what has led to their own predicament.

It’s a judgement that, as a reader, I am forced to make myself. It could be wrong – it remains uncertain. As an explanation I can’t just leave it there, I am forced to bear it in mind as I continue to read. In order to make sense of what follows I have to compare the material and see if this understanding of the character continues to bear out what follows.

In this particular case, as a reading, I think it does bear out with what follows. Later on we are presented with the relationship between the young Renata and the old Colonel – and faced with such a discrepancy of age we are forced to ask what it is that sustains the relationship, what makes it possible. Again, it is never stated directly, but when we pay attention we can see it. This scene has us observing the Colonel’s and Renata’s conversation:

‘Tell me about the town.’

‘I’ll tell you,’ the Colonel said. ‘But I don’t want to hurt you.’

‘You never hurt me. We are an old town and we had fighting men always. We respect them more than all others and I hope we understand them a little. We also know they are difficult. Usuall, as people, they are very boring to women.’

‘Do I bore you?’

‘What do you think?’ the girl asked.

‘I bore myself, Daughter.’

‘I don’t think you do, Richard, you would not have done something all your life if you were bored by it. Don’t lie to me please, darling, when we have so little time.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Don’t you see you need to tell me things to purge your bitterness?’

‘I know I tell them to you.’

‘Don’t you know I want you to die with the grace of a happy death?’ Oh, I’m getting all mixed up. Don’t let me get too mixed up.’

‘I won’t, Daughter.’

‘Tell me some more please and be just as bitter as you want.’

Given Renata’s attitude, and our understanding of the Colonel we have previously developed, we can see immediately how he can be in love with her. She provides him with the feeling that he desires most out of life – that sense of being appreciated, making his sacrifice feel worthwhile. It explains also his love of Venice as a whole (Renata nicely sums up why).

Okay – it becomes apparent here that a reader of Hemingway has one other advantage over the empirical observer of life – this advantage coming through the artful selection of material that is presented in the novel. Hemingway believed that good art became ‘realer than real’ – and by this he meant that through the art we are able to come to a better understanding of the reality. Life does not present its material so selectively – we have to work even harder to make sense of it than we do when reading Hemingway. The significant aspects of life – those moments which, when combined together allow us to make those higher abstractions which represent truths – seldom come to us in packages so neat. In life we have to pick those moments one in a thousand – and its never easy. In the artful novel, those moments have been selected for us and strung together in a stream of constant significance. And this is certainly true of the best of Hemingway’s work.

To cite one last and brief example of this fact. Consider the opening scene and it’s purpose. The shooter is resentful toward the Colonel in way that is similar to the Colonel’s treatment of the driver. The placement of this scene is not accidental – it colours and brings into sharp relief the deepest themes of the entire novel.

In criticism of Hemingway I would like to say this – through the total avoidance of an abstract, conceptual structure – we are never forced to really confront our own methodology of judgement. Hemingway is making an assumption that this conceptual structure is innate in all of us – and he is writing to the belief that intuitively we will all come to the same conclusions. His belief was that through his writing he would be able to touch the intuitions of all readers – that his writing made use of that conceptual structure that existed in all of us – appealed to its own instinctual necessity.

I’m not saying this particularly well – partly because this is my first real attempt at articulating this idea, so please bear with me.

But I think what is true is that plenty of people read Hemingway miss the point – don’t feel what Hemingway intended them to feel. Certainly with the current generation which has Hemingway out of favour – they feel that he doesn’t speak what we all need to hear. Perhaps this might be said to be because the spirit of the times has changed – because the conceptual structure that was more commonly intuitive in Hemingway’s day is no longer common today.

This may have the effect of dating Hemingway’s work – though we will perhaps need more distance of time to truely see.

What I think Hemingway should have considered is the strategic and sparing placement of the abstract – leaving the reader at the outset to intepret those abstract concepts as is natural to them. But, then working to guide the reader to revise and consider the conceptual structure itself through the selection of concrete material. The ultimate purpose being the evolution of the conceptual structure itself through art. The author no longer works to appeal to the intuitive workings of the reader’s mind, but strives to actively engage the reader in a process which is reciprocal. What I have in mind here is an active author (and radical too, though I won’t go into this here) that does not merely market himself to the feelings of the reader, but strives to truely create those feelings.

No mean feat.

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January 25th, 2010

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