Wednesday, 23 January 2013

ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES by Ernest Hemingway - a review

ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES  was Hemingway's sixth novel, and the penultimate one published in his lifetime. Receiving a roundly negative reception on publication, and indeed, pretty much since, it is not the best known of Hemingway's work. 

I, however, love it. 

Here's the first paragraph:

'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 on 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 shooters 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.'

ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES is a love story, Hemingway style. A battered old Colonel, dying from heart disease, and a nineteen year old Venetian Countess.The story is written in Hemingway's trademark style - sparse dialogue, with much left unspoken, and deceptively simple, yet labyrinthine, sentences. The book begins with the main character - fifty year old Colonel Richard Cantwell - duck hunting on a cold winter morning in Trieste. I mention the Colonel's age here as mortality and the recapturing of youth are the main themes of the book. 

After the duck hunting scene, pretty much the entire rest of the book involves Colonel Cantwell relating the details of a weekend he spent with the nineteen Italian Countess, Renata. If the age gap were not uncomfortable enough for some, it is exacerbated by Cantwell constantly referring to Renata as 'daughter'. 

It's an odd old thing. 

Indeed, much of the dialogue between the characters, if you are not used to it, the directness of Hemingway's dialogue can come across as stilted and very strange. This stilted language, however, has a rhythm and a cadence that covers a multitude of inner worlds - each character communicating only what they feel safe to put words to.

Here is an example of the dialogue:

'I always use the wrong words,' the girl said. 'Please just love me. I wish it was me who could love you.'
'You do.'
'Yes, I do,' she said. 'With all my heart.'
They were going with the wind now and they were both tired.
'Do you think-'
'I don't think,' the girl said.
'Well try and think.'
'I will.'
'Drink a glass of this.'
'Why not? It's very good.'
It was. There was still ice in the bucket and the wine was cold and clear.
'Can I stay at the Gritti?'
'Why not?'
'It wouldn't be right. For them. Nor you. The hell with me.'
'Then I suppose I should go home.'
'Yes,' the Colonel said. That is the logical supposition.'

ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES may not be the best known, or most accessible of Hemingway's work, but if you want a lesson in the unsaid, a picture of Venice, or a grapple with mortality, it's a cracker.

Available in the UK here and the US here

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