Two hundred years ago on May 10, T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson died of wounds sustained when Confederate soldiers mistook him for a Union Cavalry unit. His final words were “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
In 1950, Ernest Hemingway took those words for the title of his last full-length novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. Set in Venice in 1948, Across the River and Into the Trees recounts a weekend in the life of a 51-year old Colonel in the American Army stationed in Trieste who is dying from heart disease. Richard Cantwell visits Venice, a city he absolutely adores, in order to spend time with his 19-year old girlfriend, Renata, a beautiful countess who adores Cantwell.
They spend the weekend walking and talking, eating and drinking, professing their love for each other repeatedly, making love, and finally saying goodbye. They both know he is dying and they know they probably won't see each other again. At her probing, he tells her his war story. He had risen to the rank of 3-star General during WWII, but was demoted--neither Hemingway nor Cantwell tells why. He is jaded, cynical but tries his best not to use "rough words" when talking with Renata--a goal that is admirable but not often attained.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book. The dialogue is fantasyland--nobody could seriously talk the way these two characters do. They are repetitive and wooden. Cantwell calls Renata "Daughter" most of the time, which is more than a little creepy. The various other characters that the couple encounters--the waiters, the maitre d'hotel, the shopkeepers--all call Cantwell, affectionately, "my Colonel." The affectation of this simply set my teeth on edge.
However, regardless of all this, the novel works. As so much literature set in Venice, it is elegiac. I loved the parts in which Cantwell and Renata are moving about the city--riding in a gondola, crossing the bridges, leaning into the cold wind, admiring the sun on the water. Like Hemingway, Cantwell's favorite haunt is Harry's Bar, near San Marco. It is for that flavor and atmosphere that I wanted to read this book. It's been a long time since I read anything by Hemingway and I have a grudging respect for his ability to make literature out of a fairly simple story.
Consider that the story itself is the stuff of fantasy. A 19-year old, rich and beautiful Contessa in love with a battle-scarred American colonel is not very believable, unless, of course, you see in Renata America's instinctual and at times conflicted love for Europe, Italy, Venice and all the beauty, history, wealth and depth that sheer bravado cannot attain. Across the River and Into the Trees is an articulation of the relationship between a bold, brash American who swooped in and fought to liberate Europe from tyranny, but at the end of the day fades back into wilderness leaving the Old World forever on her pedestal.
Despite John O'Hara's rave review of the book in the New York Times book review, which is worth reading from a lit crit historical perspective, Across the River and Into the Trees was never a critical or commercial success. It reads like a confessional--Dick Cantwell is too much like Hemingway for the reader not to see him as an alter ego--and Cantwell is intrinsically unlikeable. He's a tough old bird who shoot ducks and dies. But his story still touched my heart in the same way that Thomas Mann did in Death in Venice. Maybe I'm a sucker for pathos, maybe Hemingway really did know what he was doing.
If I wasn't interested in reading novels set in Venice, I probably would have never read this book--it's not my favorite book of the year, or even the month, but reading it was a rich and thoughtful experience.
|Ernest and Mary Hemingway on a Canal Boat in Venice.|
One final note, I enjoyed reading the phrase "a moveable feast" several times in Across the River and Into the Trees, knowing that that is the title of his memoirs of his time in Paris in the 1920s, published posthumously in 1964.
Here is the Wikipedia description of the phrase and how it relates to Hemingway:
In Christianity, a moveable feast or movable feast is a holy day – a feast day or a fast day – whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar year but moves in response to the date of Easter, the date of which varies according to a complex formula. Easter is itself a "moveable feast."
By extension, other religions' feasts are occasionally described by the same term. In addition many countries have secular holidays that are moveable, for instance to make holidays more consecutive; the term "moveable feast" is not used in this case however.
By metaphoric extension, the term "moveable feast" was used by Ernest Hemingway to mean the memory of a splendid place that continues to go with the moving traveler for the rest of life, after he has had the experience of it and gone away. The author used the title A Moveable Feast for his late-life memoirs of his early life as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s. He said to a friend: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
Isn't that simply a wonderful metaphor?