Across the River and Into the Trees

September 6, 2007 at 3:45 am (Uncategorized)

Even though I have spent practically my whole life to date reading, and at a fairly great rate, there are enormous gaps in my knowledge. Everywhere I turn there’s another book I haven’t read. Sometimes whole movements. Parts of the canon. It’s exhausting just thinking about every author I’ve never read. Some people truthfully seem to think that as an English PhD, I’ve (naturally) read every book on the library shelves. Honey, I doubt I’ve read every book on ANY shelf (except my own). Do you have any idea how many books there are out there, all competing for my time and love? It’s overwhelming. And it feels infinite, out of reach, even to someone who’s excited rather than intimidated by the endless proliferation of titles.

But I am trying to fill in some of the more gaping holes. There are some authors every reader should just bloody well read, and although I think I’m doing better than fair on this front, up until recently I’d never read any Ernest Hemingway. Not one word. Like I said: gaping hole. I’d actually sort of forgotten about Hemingway, although I realise how blasphemous that sounds, until a little while ago, when I read the Penguin Dorothy Parker, 600 pages of the famed wit’s short stories, book and theatre reviews and poetry. I was really bowled over by it. What a collection; what a razor sharp crazy kid she must have been.

So when Dorothy Parker extolls Hemingway’s writerly virtues in her review of Men Without Women (1927), my first thought is “I gotta get me some ‘o’ that.” If it’s good enough for DP, it’s certainly good enough for this ‘constant reader.’

Now, perhaps I should have read the book in question, but my local library didn’t stock it and it wasn’t in any of the bookstores. I also thought – sensibly, I still believe – that my Hemingway Hole was so vast it just needed filling, and any old Hemingway would do in order to get me on my way out of it. So I borrowed Across the River and Into the Trees (1951, I think).

Where to begin?

The book was already overdue when I renewed the loan. That date, too, inevitably lapsed. I eventually returned it just this week, over a month late. For the fine, I might as well have bought the damn thing. To the book: mixed feelings. Very, very mixed feelings. I know I’m not supposed to say this about the great Ernest Hemingway, but some of it I found a crippling bore. I read so many other books instead of his in the meantime, and that’s as good an indication as any of how I felt about it. I am a pretty monogamous reader. I can only do one at a time. For Hemingway, though, I made an exception, fleeing into the open pages of just about any book instead of faithfully coming home to his.

But then there were some amazing passages, too, just when I was despairing. The sort of writing that takes your breath away. Moments of sitting there thinking “You bastard, that is just too good.” Several moments like that, in the same book. Good going across a career let alone in one title. So I pressed on, looking for these jewels and indeed being rewarded all along the way. Some of it is perfect writing, just perfect.

But Christ Almighty, I sang for my supper, Ernest. Those teeeeeeeeedious, oh so killingly dull conversations between Richard and Renata had me almost fitting with boredom. I just hated them. Hated them together. Hated their repetitious, insipid, stupid conversations. I wanted Renata to die a slow and horrible death on the next page, every page. I sighed and yawned expansively whenever the two of them got together. Not this again, I thought. Can’t Richard talk to himself instead? You think I’m kidding, but the best bits of the book are when the man is inside his own head. There’s only one conversation between Renata and Richard that bucked this trend, and it bucked it good, right off the ranch. It’s early morning, and Richard rants at Renata, and it’s funny and awful and really sublime. But that’s because it’s a painting of her rather than her, and it’s the only time I saw them together and thought ‘brilliant.’

I’m not sure which Hemingway I’m going to tackle next, but were it not for the fact that he’s Hemingway, I honestly doubt I’d be rushing the list. And it’ll have to wait. I’m finally rewarding myself with the new Don DeLillo, Falling Man. No flight into the pages of another man when he’s in town, that’s for sure. I’m not even tempted.

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4 Comments

  1. Tim said,

    Hi Di,

    I’ve only read some of his short stories, but by all accounts ‘across the river’ is crap. Apparently ‘The Sun Also Rises’, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘A Farewell to Arms’ are pretty damn on the button. And I’m embarrassed about not having read any as well.

    T

  2. doctordi said,

    I wish it came with a warning: Not Hemingway’s Best, or something like that. I suppose there’s a good reason why the titles you mention are the best known and in fact what I went looking for – unfortunately none of them were available at my local library. They were probably out on loan to people who knew better than to borrow ‘Across the River.’

  3. BCN Food Girl said,

    The Old Man and the Sea is my favourite of his and a novela, so a quick read. I read somewhere that Across the River and Into the Trees was almost universally hated, even when it first came out.

  4. doctordi said,

    Right. Glad to know I’m not the only one. It very nearly crushed my spirit getting through the thing. Thanks, BCNFG, I like the sound of novella, especially after such a rough trot in the first round (shudder).

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