I’m late to liking Hemingway. I finally discovered I could stand him reading A Moveable Feast in college, then The Green Hills of Africa pre-Peace Corps and finally A Farewell to Arms with my son about a decade ago. Today I’m a fan, thanks to the book I’m reviewing today.
Back in post World War II Italy, real-life Hemingway bet a beautiful young Italian aristocrat–Adriana. A short while ago, I reviewed the non-fiction book on this relationship, Autumn In Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse. This then is Hemingway’s not-very-fictionalized version of the story.
Colonel, formerly Brigadier General, Richard Cantwell is a mid-life, 50, no longer married, no children. He has an injured hand and arm, but the arm still works. He falls for the beautiful Renata–just 18 years old. (In aristocratic circles this has never been a big deal. He was not seen as “grooming” her or as a pervert or anything.) She enjoys his attention and begins to fall in love. He calls her “daughter,” which is a tad cringe-worthy, but he only did so in private or with trusted friends. Yes, I know, I know, but times were different.
The real “Colonel” and the real “Renata”
Her head was on his chest now, and the Colonel said, ‘Why did you not want me to take off the tunic?’
‘I like to feel the buttons. Is it wrong?’
I loved their romance. I loved that Hemingway, the classic man’s man, could be tender in his thoughts. I have to believe their conversations in the story were largely those of the real couple–certainly the Colonel’s emotions HAD to be Hemingway’s own. The sweet, silly things they said–the way she has him tell her about the war as they lie down together. The joy in holding each other. The gondola rides. It was all like being on the best date ever. I wanted to be Renata, I wanted to feel those military tunic buttons, wanted to be engulfed in the scent of this real man–a man who would never wax anything or anywhere but a car!
‘Kiss me first.’
She kissed him kind, and hard, and desperately, and the Colonel could not think about any fights or any picturesque or strange incidents. He only thought of her and how she felt and how close life comes to death when there is ecstasy. And what the hell is ecstasy and what’s ecstasy’s rank and serial number? And how does her black sweater feel? And who made all her smoothness and delight
‘Is she really dead?’
‘Deader than Phoebus the Phoenician. But she doesn’t know it yet.’
‘What would you do if we were together in the Piazza and you saw her?’
‘I’d look straight through her to show her how dead she was.’
‘Thank you very much,’ the girl said. ‘You know that another woman, or a woman in memory, is a terrible thing for a young girl to deal with when she is still without experience.’
‘There isn’t any other woman,’ the Colonel told her, and his eyes were bad and remembering. ‘Nor is there any woman of memory.’
‘Thank you, very much,’ the girl said. ‘When I look at you I believe it truly. But please never look at me nor think of me like that.’
‘Should we hunt her down and hang her to a high tree?’ the Colonel said with anticipation.
‘No. Let us forget her.’
‘She is forgotten,’ the Colonel said. And, strangely enough, she was. It was strange because she had been present in the room for a moment, and she had very nearly caused a panic; which is one of the strangest things there is, the Colonel thought. He knew about panics. (Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees)
I do have one small complaints–you knew I would, right? He used his then wife as the Colonel’s ex-wife, right down to her coming to bed with her hair pinned into pin-curls. That was a cheap, mean shot. Otherwise, I loved every word.
Across the River and Into the Woods is available on Project Gutenberg/Canada for free here. Or, for the book on Amazon click the linked title. Remember, I do not make any money off this blog–not even when you click on a link I provide to Amazon for your convenience.
Read the nonfiction account of the romance that sparked the novel–Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse. My review is here.
My Mind Wandered….
…as is often the case, to my favorite fictional older wounded man (likely a colonel, too) and his younger woman: Sir Anthony Strallan and Lady Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey. I know, I know, but that was Julian Fellowes doing–Sir Anthony would NEVER have been so unchivilrous! And, yes, I also know, that in the end Edith got to outrank Mary by being a Marchioness–and that is all that really matters….