Hemingway is one of the very finest to do it, maybe the damn finest, as the man himself would say. He gave a voice to the inner thoughts of his characters like none before or since. I felt like I was Colonel Richard Cantrell’s chauffeur Jackson himself after this novel. His famed “iceberg” style is in full effect here. The sparse sentences he employs hint at the depth of human thought and emotion bubbling under the surface. I often find that authors frequently over write and explain everything. Hemingway gets the balance right.
The dialogue between Colonel Cantrell and his lover Renata can occasionally feel overwrought, mawkish and unctuous. The over the top “I love you” type of back and forth can be irritable. Yet it perfectly highlights our nature, the bullshit small talk we all use a social lubricant. The language is scanter when it comes revealing Cantrell’s innermost thoughts. Consider his monologue about Renata: “You sleep better than anyone ever slept”. Hemingway nails that exact feeling any lover has had.
His writing is replete with heavy doses of wit and truth: “They say you should never speak ill of the dead but I think it is the best time to speak truly of them. I have never said anything of the dead that I would not say to his face”. Indeed. Or my favourite line in the novel “When you simplify you become unjust”. What a thought. Makes me think of every conversation I have ever heard between political ideologues. As evidenced by our insane pursuit of the “answer” to life via religion, communism, capitalism, politics, science etc. The whole left and right divide. Far too many of the seven billion of us currently residing here vaingloriously attempt to simplify and reduce our understanding of reality down to a single line of thinking. When we do, we become unjust. Hemingway’s writing is full of such latent ideas, just waiting to be teased out.
Love and War:
There is a striking moment when Cantrell tries to tip a waiter who serves him wine on a gondola trip with Renata and he learns that the man’s family was blown up during the war by the Allies bombs. He tries to apologise but it is empty and refused. It brought home to me the lack of humanity in war. It is not distant forces fighting behind enemy lines. It is one human killing another human’s family. Surely, any sane and intelligent person condemns this behaviour. Or is war natural? It is, indeed, a vile thought to have. Question is, is it true? Humans always find a way to quarrel with each other. War is two people fighting on a gigantic scale, with lethal weapons. Can we evolve past this or will there always be humans that want to fight?
War is referred to as a “sad science” by Hemingway. and there is an odd link between war and love throughout. Think of Renata. She seems to be attracted by Cantrell’s warmongering exploits. She constantly pushes him to tell her about the battles that he oversaw. “I hate it but love it” she says when he implores her not to keep pushing him on it.
“Do I have to hate the krauts because we kill them?” he wonders. “Do I have to hate them as soldiers and human beings? It seems too easy a solution to me”. He obfuscates the simplistic notion that what “we” do is justified and what “they” do is bad. Indeed, think of the war crimes committed on all sides during war. Again, think of the waiter’s family, who were innocent non-combatants. Are German people really bad because of the actions of their leaders? Of course not. This is the grey area that Hemingway explores. There are no answers but it is refreshing to hear somebody have a good rummage around here. It is a refreshing and honest take on war and leaves out the usual jingoistic nonsense.
Comparing himself to his chauffeur Jackson, a fellow American soldier, he describes him as “in no sense a soldier but only a man placed against his will in uniform”. Hemingway frequently distinguishes between professional and conscripted soldiers in his novels, making the point that war is forced upon civilians. Very few people actually want to be soldiers.
“In our army you obey like a dog…you always hope you get a good master” says the Colonel. This is an interesting thought about how the infantrymen were animals and the generals were humans. War is not just one side treating the other as sub human. In fact, each side can treat its own like animals.
It is not a coincidence that he is alcoholic. Question is how much the war affected him. We know he was drinking during the battle of Paris so it seems logical that he had to drown out the brutality in a miasma of Valpolicella and gin.
“This will solve all your ills and indecision” says the Colonel as he passes a Martini to Renata. Boozing has the transformative effect of creating a “momentary destruction of sorrow” for the characters. The militaristic language is telling.
Hemingway elevates the simple to the significant with wonderful aplomb. Renata brushed her hair and: “was combing it with difficulty and without respect, and, since it was very heavy hair and as alive as the hair of peasants, or the hair of the beauties of the great nobility, it was resistant to the comb”. You can read him just for the words. To think that critics in 1950 said that his prose was weak in “Across the river…”
The pathos of the Colonel is bare and striking. The loneliness and isolation pregnant throughout: “Only tourists and lovers take gondolas, he thought. Except to cross the canal in the places where there are no bridges. I ought to go to Harry’s, or some damn place. But I think I’ll go home”.