Across The River Revisited

Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:09 AM

Taki’s Magazine

Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees was published in 1950 to terrible reviews. It became an instant best seller. Despite a considerable Hemingway library, I don't claim to be a Hemingway specialist. (As with Scott FitzgeraldI am a serious fan.)  I used to believe that Across the River was the best book Hemingway ever wrote. I picked it up again recently and started reading. It is a strange and baffling book. My Scribner's paperback, published in the 1970s, has a notation on the inside cover which reads, “A lot of this is pretty bad”. It still is.

No doubt, it was the locale or “terrain" in Hemingway parlance, which I found so appealing. I'm talking about Venice, the Gritti Palace Hotel and Harry's Bar. In Across the River, Hemingway described these places referentially. As a backdrop, they are wonderful. 

The problem is the novel itself...the narration, the dialogue, and the story, such as it is. Across the River is Hemingway's response to World War II and to where he found himself, half a century old, in the aftermath of the war and ten years without having published a novel.

Then there is The New Yorker profile of Hemingway by Lillian Ross in the May 13th 1950 issue, which preceded publication of the book. The two are inextricably linked. "How do you like it now, Gentlemen?" is a justly famous profile. It could well be the most entertaining piece ever printed in that magazine. By subscription, it can be accessed online via The New Yorker archives. Until the internet age, that was not an option. Some years ago at the Library of Congress I made a Xerox from an original copy of the magazine in the stacks. It has held up nicely. I find it hilarious.

Lillian Ross catches Hemingway at a snapshot in time--November 16-18, 1949--when he has the draft typescript of Across the River in hand, having landed at Idlewild (now JFK) from Havana with his wife, Mary, in tow. He was pleased as punch with his work, describing it as the best he had ever done. (“She better book than Farewell.") He would sign a generous contract with Charlie Scribner and deliver the nearly-completed typescript, before boarding the Île de France for Europe. Ross' method is to tag along as a sort of innocent bystander. She observes and records, like a camera, not as a critic. 

Hemingway is over the top, way over. Some might say he looks and sounds ridiculous. The reason for his exuberance is Across the River and into the Trees. He is happy to have almost finished it. He can see the end. School is out. He has won again. 

Hemingway is ensconced at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, eating caviar and cocktail food out of tins, and drinking champagne with Marlene Dietrich. (“The half bottle of champagne is the enemy of man.") There are forays to the Metropolitan Museum up the street and to Abercrombie & Fitch, in the opposite direction, where he runs into his socialite friend Winston Guest. The two commence shadow boxing on the sidewalk. 

The New Yorker profile came out six months later, in May 1950. It created a sensation. It was a bombshell. The question on everybody's mind was, has Lillian Ross done a hatchet job on Ernest Hemingway? It was a difficult call. It could be read either way. Hemingway had studiously fed Ross background material through the mail in the meantime.

He claimed not to be unhappy with the result. Whatever misgivings he may have had, Hemingway wrote Ross that " was a good straight OK piece." How could Hemingway criticize Ross for writing well and reporting what happened? Indeed, the very protective Mary Hemingway, was not upset either. Ross remained a good friend to both to the end.

Then, four months later, on September 9th, The New Yorker published Alfred Kazin's longish review of Across the River. It was devastating. Kazin decided that Hemingway had made a travesty of himself. Kazin found the book embarrassing and vulgar. He ended with the backhanded remark, “It is wonderful to know that Hemingway has recovered, and that this book is not his last word."

Only slightly less negative was a short review entitled "On the Ropes" in Time magazine of September 6th. The anonymous reviewer asserts, “In Across the River, Hemingway never wins a round." And further, “Hemingway, at his best one of the few great writers of his generation, gives his admirers almost nothing to cheer about." 

For me the biggest problem with Across the River is repetition. It becomes tedious fast. The grandiosity is of such high quality as to be stupefying. The red flags start appearing as soon as U.S. Colonel Richard Cantwell (the bigger-than-life Hemingway character) is driven over the causeway to Venice and steps into his first gondola. He arrives at the Gritti dock and dismisses his driver. He shouts, “Jackson, you're on the town. You can sign here for chow. I don't want to see you. I'm tired of seeing you, because you worry and you don't have fun...."

What follows inside the Gritti is an extended exchange between the Colonel and the Maitre d’Hotel. They are members of a diminutive secret society of which the Colonel is "The Supreme Commander". The Maitre d'Hotel is the "Gran Maestro". The secret society is an inside joke and their conversation, mostly about old times and battles, is preposterous. Yet it is meant to be taken seriously, and goes on for quite awhile. The dialogue is between two supreme beings, sitting high on Olympus. 

[I agree that a Maitre d'Hotel of the Gritti Palace, as well as the Concierges at the Gritti, both day and night, are akin to supreme beings. In my dealings with the Gritti Concierges over the past twenty-five years, it has been apparent that they knew everything worth knowing. First of all, they were Venetian. Who knows more?]  

Was Hemingway pulling our leg, or was he fooling himself? I began to wonder if, perhaps, the Gran Maestro character was humoring The Supreme Commander, the way you might humor a lovable person who is off his rocker. This could be possible, without the Supreme Commander ever realizing it. The Maitre d'Hotel would simply be doing his job, in taking care of an eccentric, loyal and important guest.

[The personnel at the Gritti prided themselves on solving all problems, thinking ahead to any difficulties. A small example. I recall touching base at the Concierge desk one afternoon, in the process of checking out of the hotel, when the Concierge noticed that a button was loose on my pants. In an instant, a seamstress appeared from out of a side door and ran up to me, thread and needle in hand. Without comment, she went to work on the errant button, as I continued my check-out formalities. The repairs continued even as I stepped outside into the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio.]

Finally we meet the Colonel's inamorata, Renata, at Harry's Bar, located further along in the direction of Piazza San Marco. She is a Contessa, age eighteen. The wise, hardscrabble Colonel Cantwell is fifty-one. He has an undefined heart condition, for which he is popping mannitol hexanitrate tablets, routinely washed down with Gordon's Gin and Valpolicella. He is often in a bad mood. The Colonel and the Contessa are in love. We never learn how they met and became involved.

The young Renata idolizes the Colonel. He in turn has a goddess fixation on Renata. She is a knockout. They spend their time between the Gritti and Harry's Bar, with a quick trip to Florian's on the Piazza, before retreating back to the private, sophisticated little world of the Gritti. 

The plot device is somewhat similar to that of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the masterpiece Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1936. The hero is dying. In Kilimanjaro, that is clear from the start. In Across the River, it dawns on you half way through. There are hints, of course, but only in passing. Then it hits you right in the gut.

“Richard," Renata interrupts him on her second visit to his room at the Gritti, “don't lie to me please, darling, when we have so little time." And next, “Don't you know I want you to die with the grace of a happy death?" What? Does the Gran Maestro know about this as well? It is news to the reader. 

As in Kilimanjaro, the embittered all-wise protagonist dredges up everything from the past, and throws it against the wall. Here, Cantwell does the same for Renata, obsessively focusing upon war, both World Wars, and himself. The critical reassessment goes on and on, until you want to scream. Some of it is incomprehensible. Other parts seem inconsequential. Concurrently, there is commentary upon wine, food, love and politics. 

If the Colonel asks the Contessa once, he must ask her a dozen times, “Am I boring you, daughter?" No girl is going to sit there and listen to an older man sound off nonstop on masculine topics like war. Of course, this must have occurred to Hemingway. Renata assures Richard that she is not bored. She is genuinely enthralled. It is hero worship in addition to true love.

However, to relieve any possible boredom for Renata, Hemingway has the Colonel, in her absence, talking to Renata's painted portrait, which has been set up on a chair in his room. I count three chapters devoted to it.  

Bear in mind that the fictional relationship in the novel was based upon a serious, real-life infatuation Hemingway had in real time in Venice. For this reason, Hemingway had publication in Italy blocked for two years. In the novel in seems to me that Hemingway is projecting a best-case, idealized scenario for himself of this unrequited infatuation. Nothing came of it.

In addition to Kilimanjaro, there is a second parallel. I am referring to Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. I admit not to being a fan of The Sun. Sorry, but I regard it as juvenilia, much like Fitzgerald's first two novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. In The Sun, the protagonist's sexual machinery has been significantly damaged in the Great War. The young Jake Barnes cannot perform. This is a problem. He has to factor it into his relationships.

In Across the River and into the Trees, the over-the-hill U.S. Colonel Cantwell faces a similar predicament with the Venetian Contessa Renata. His heart condition and collateral issues have rendered him impotent. Note the love-making scene in the gondola, after dinner at the Gritti. (Chapter XIII.) And then the next morning, the confrontation the Colonel has with two young men on his way to the Rialto market.

In closing, let me mention my brief encounter with Ernest's younger brother, Leicester, in the 1970s. It was on a seaplane from Miami to Bimini. Leicester was 16 years younger than Ernest. He looked startlingly like Earnest of the 1950's. He even acted like Earnest would have acted, and talked the way he would have talked. I don't know if this was because the younger man was imitating his famous brother or that similar mannerisms ran in the family. 

Leicester had written an informative 1962 bio of Ernest. Leicester shot himself in 1982, just like Ernest did in 1961. Their father shot himself in 1928. In Leicester's case, the reason was diabetes. Ernest, The Supreme Commander, found himself trapped with high blood pressure and an unbalanced mind, aggravated by shock treatments. 

No matter how wonderful and interesting your circumstances may be, as the years roar by, it is going to end badly. That is Hemingway's enduring message, it seems to me, contained in Across the River and into the Trees.

--Copyright 2013 Patrick Foy--