Thursday, November 14, 2013

No rest for the war weary

Across the River and into the Trees
by Ernest Hemingway

Veterans Day got me thinking about Hemingway's war novels. I was going to recommend that you go back and re-read A Farewell to Arms if you haven't picked it up since high school or college. It's Hemingway's best and better than you remember, especially once you've got some serious life experience under your belt.

Instead, let me recommend the last and least-read of Hemingway's full-length novels, Across the River and into the Trees. Though set in Venice in 1949, it's really about the Second World War. Postwar Venice resembles Vienna in Orson Welles' Third Man, a pressure cooker of benumbed civilians, Allied occupiers, sullen ex-fascists, ardent communists and profiteers of every stripe. As always in Hemingway's novels there's a doomed romance in the foreground, here involving a wounded and literally brokenhearted 50-year-old American colonel and a nearly chaste 19-year-old Venetian contessa.

The dying colonel's true love, however, is his "beautiful command," lost five years earlier "under orders" in Germany's Hürtgen Forest. The months-long nightmare in Hürtgen Forest was arguably America's costliest blunder in the European war as one Division after another was thrown in, quickly decimated, and withdrawn in tatters weeks later with little to show for its losses. Hemingway was there, unofficially attached to the 4th Infantry as a correspondent for Colliers magazine, and Across is a kind of eulogy for the men he watched fight and die in that miserable, pointless operation.

Across is hardly Hemingway's best novel, but it is historically fascinating both for its snapshot of Venice as postwar was bleeding into Cold War and for its "punch drunk" flashbacks to the war itself. Later writersVonnegut especiallywould do it better, but Hemingway was the first to try to recreate the after-effects of wartime trauma in print.

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Review by Don Beistle

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