Into, the Trees and out of Sight
Across the River and into the Trees.
by Ernest Hemingway.
Scribner’s. 308 pp. $3.00.
The first thing to be said about this novel is that it is so egregiously bad as to render all comment on it positively embarrassing to anyone who esteems Hemingway as one of the more considerable prose-artists of our time and as the author of some of the finest short stories in the language. Hence the disappointment induced by this latest work of his, a work manifestly composed in a state of distemper, if not actual demoralization.
This novel reads like a parody by the author of his own manner—a parody so biting that it virtually destroys the mixed social and literary legend of Hemingway that has now endured for nearly three decades. For it can be said that not since the days of Dickens and later of Mark Twain has a writer of fiction in English succeeded in beguiling and captivating his readers to the extent that Hemingway did; and his success had a quality of ease and naturalness that was essentially exhilarating. In this latest book, however, the legend suffers irremediable damage. Here he really goes too far in the exploitation of it, indulging himself in blatant self-pity and equally blatant conceit, with the result that certain faults of personality, and the moral and intellectual immaturity which he was never able to overcome but which heretofore, in the greater part of his creative work, he managed to sublimate with genuine artistry, now come through as ruling elements, forcing the reader to react to Hemingway the man rather than to Hemingway the artist. And the man in Hemingway—in his literary appearances at any rate—has nearly always struck one as the parasitical double of the artist in him.
This cleavage between man and artist was long ago perceived by his more acute critics. Thus Lionel Trilling has observed that the artist in Hemingway is at once conscious and possessed of a kind of innocence while the man is self-conscious and naive; and Edmund Wilson has remarked that “something frightful seems to happen to Hemingway as soon as he begins to write in his own person. In his fiction, the conflicting elements of his personality, the emotional situations that obsess him, are externalized and objectified; and the result is an art which is severe, intense, and deeply serious. But as soon as he talks in his own person he seems to lose all his capacity for self-criticism and is likely to become fatuous or maudlin.” Now though this new narrative is written not in the first person but in the fictional third person, still it is precisely the element of the fatuous and the maudlin that predominates in it. The explanation for that lies, I think, in the insecure division between man and artist in Hemingway. The strain of sustaining it has been obviously getting him down and the artist has been gradually giving way to the man.
That this was the case was already becoming apparent in certain sections of sort of thing in partsTo Have and Have Not, a poor novel on the whole, whose protagonist, Harry Morgan, was presented, in a manner unmistakably and disagreeably subjective, as a kind of totem of sexual virility; the infantile nature of the fantasy was plain and so was the sub-literary effect. Then one came upon the same sort of thing in parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls, particularly in the parts celebrating the love-making of Robert Jordan and Maria; and in Across the River and into the Trees the personal brag and splutter is even more jarring, for here the artist appears to have been entirely displaced by the man. The fact is that there is hardly any aesthetic distance between the author and Colonel Richard Cantwell, the hero of the novel. They have so much in common, in their private history and war experience no less than in their opinions, tastes, attitudes, and prejudices, that there is no telling them apart. Thus the author intrudes everywhere, violating the most elementary specifications that make for verisimilitude in a work of fiction. For example, why is this colonel of the regular U. S. Army, who on the face of it is no great shakes as a worldly character, treated in the luxurious Venice hotels and bars with the minute deference usually reserved for the celebrities of international café society? As for the obsessive consumption of food and liquor, especially liquor, and the pride taken in the knowledge and selection of them, that certainly belongs to the more recent versions of the Hemingway legend; it is wholly unconvincing, however, as an integral part of the characterization of an army officer of the type of Colonel Cantwell. These may be small details, to be sure, but they point to an identification of author and hero disruptive of the primary and indispensable aesthetic illusion.
The time-span of the story is three days, the scene is Venice and the Adriatic countryside, and the action consists of a duck-shoot, which is far and away the best bit in the book, and, for the rest, of prolonged love passages between the Colonel and his girl, the nineteen-year-old Countess Renata, who is not a recognizable human being at all but a narcissistically constructed love-object. She is even less credible than Maria of the Spanish novel. Both belong to the tradition of the adoring and submissive Hemingway girls, a type that has been getting more and more adoring and submissive as the years pass. Renata, the latest incarnation, is purely the most unreal of the lot, wholly the product of an adolescent revery of irresistible mastery and perfection of experience in love. The ritualistic love-talk between the Colonel and this girl is of an indescribable tediousness, and the way in which he introduces his war memories into this talk is structurally so artificial as to deprive the recalled experience of the authority it implicitly lays claim to. The war scenes evoked in this book come off very badly in comparison with the actual representation of war in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. What is missing here is “the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion,” as Hemingway once put it with the precision of a conscientious artist speaking of his craft.
The stated themes of love and death are unrealized in this novel. The Colonel dies of heart disease as the action ends, but we are prepared for his death only factually, not imaginatively. It is an occurrence, nothing more, devoid of expressive implications, since the story turns on no significant principle of honor or valor or compassion such as invested some of Hemingway’s earlier narratives with value and meaning. This could not but happen once the author became involved with his hero in exactly the wrong way, shifting from the role of creator to that of devotee pure and simple. He is unaware, or only dimly aware, of his hero’s vanity and brutality and of the ugly competitiveness exhibited in his relationship to other human beings. There can be no evaluation of character or behavior in such a context, and no intelligible meaning to the action.
It is true, of course, that Hemingway has always been more closely involved with his hero than most novelists. The relation in which he stood to him, however, was not that of literal and helpless identification but that of the ego to the ego-ideal. Seeking to “find himself” in this leading character, he endowed him with all the qualities he considered admirable; and the world into which he turned him loose to do or die, though real enough, was nonetheless specially selected and ordered so as to provide him with the conditions he needed for self-fulfillment; and these were conditions of relative freedom from normal circumstances and routine compulsions; for it is only within the special ambience of combat and virile sports that he performed his part, discovering the fate that awaited him. It seems to me that a good many qualities of Hemingway’s prose are accounted for by this disengagement of his hero and his typical situation from the thick coils of environment, from its confusion of objects and facts. It certainly helped Hemingway to form a style of unusual lightness and freshness, but it did not make him a novelist of the first rank. There is a certain kind of freedom which the greater novelists cannot afford and do not care to solicit. Still, the fact that the binding agent of Hemingway’s work was the personality of his hero, who alone held sway and in whom all the compositional elements were merged, made for a unity and concreteness of effect matched by very few of his contemporaries. But within this creative process there always lurked the danger of a possible merger between ego and ego-ideal that would disrupt the delicate balance allowing the author to live through his leading character imaginatively while standing apart from him as a man. That this balance has been lost is now evident. Colonel Cantwell is not Hemingway’s ego-ideal, like Jake Barnes and Lieutenant Henry; he is the ego-ideal taken as achieved and absorbed into the ego of Hemingway, who is thus turned into his own complete ego-ideal. It is greatly to be hoped that in his future work the man recedes and the artist regains control.