Hemingway was 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 whilst reading “Across The River…”. Hemingway’s famed “iceberg” style was in full effect here with the sparse sentences he employed hinting at the depth of human thought and emotion bubbling away under the surface.
The dialogue between Colonel Cantrell and his lover Renata occasionally felt overwrought, mawkish and unctuous. The over-the-top “I love you” type of back-and-forth can be irritable. Yet it perfectly highlighted our nature – the bullshit small talk that we all use as a social lubricant, even within our most intimate relationships. The language became scanter still when it came to revealing Cantrell’s innermost thoughts. Consider his monologue about Renata, “You sleep better than anyone ever slept”. Hemingway nailed that exact feeling that any lover has ever had when they become aware of their partner contentedly asleep beside them.
His writing was replete with heavy doses of truthful wit, “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. It made me think of every conversation that I have ever heard between political ideologues. Far too many of the seven billion of us currently residing here vainly attempt to simplify the most complex of questions and reduce our understanding of reality down to a single line of thinking. When we do, we become unjust.
There was a striking moment when Cantrell tried to tip a waiter who served him wine on a gondola trip with Renata and he learned that the man’s family was blown up by the Allies during the war. He tried to apologise but it just came across as empty and brought home the lack of humanity in World War Two. This was not distant forces fighting behind enemy lines. It was one human killing another human’s family.
War was referred to as a “sad science” by Hemingway and there was an odd link between war and love throughout. Think of Renata. She was attracted by Cantrell’s warmongering exploits. She constantly pushed him to tell her about the battles that he oversaw, “I hate it but love it” she said when he implored her not to keep pushing him on it.
“Do I have to hate the Krauts because we kill them?” he wondered. “Do I have to hate them as soldiers and human beings? It seems too easy a solution to me”. Hemingway explored 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 World War Two. Recall how the waiter’s family were innocent non-combatants. Were German people inherently bad because of the actions of their leaders? Of course not. Hemingway’s was a refreshing and honest take on war and omitted the usual jingoistic nonsense.
Comparing himself to his chauffeur Jackson, a fellow American soldier, he described him as, “in no sense a soldier but only a man placed against his will in uniform”. Hemingway frequently distinguished 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” said the Colonel. This was an interesting thought about how the infantrymen were animals and the generals were humans. War was not just one side treating the other as subhuman. Each side was perfectly capable of treating its own side like animals too.
The war may not have made the Colonel an alcoholic but it hardly helped. “This will solve all your ills and indecision,” he said as he passed a Martini to Renata. Boozing had the transformative effect of creating a “momentary destruction of sorrow”.
Hemingway elevated 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 Hemingway just for the words. To think that critics in 1950 said that the prose was weak in “Across The River…” is astonishing.
The pathos of the Colonel was striking. He was lonely and isolated, “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”.