Ernest Hemingway Unabridged

Across the River and Into the Trees

Simon and Schuster Audio

6 CDs; ISBN 0-7435-6443-X

Running time: about 7 hours

Read by: Boyd Gaines

Reviewed by Bob Lane

Oral Interpretation is one of the oldest forms of Speech Communication. Long ago it was assumed that literature was meant to be read out loud. Before the printing press, it was the oral reader who “published” the literary works. During the 18th and 19th centuries this practice was called “elocution;” today we call it simply, “interpretation.” Oral Interpretation is still taught in Speech Departments in several colleges in the USA, although only rarely in Canada. Audio books are an important medium now since CD players and MP3 players are inexpensive and available most everywhere. Commuters can listen to novels while on the daily drive. (I listened to this recording while working out at the gym.)

Aspects of Oral Interpretation include delivery, the audience, the rhetorical act itself, and above all communication between text and audience. The reader is to be a conduit for the literature and should, for the most part disappear to “become” the text. Interpretation involves an active participation with the literature because it demands the reader interact with the words, the emotions of the work, the intention of the author, and with the audience. As a performing art it places strenuous demands on the reader.

Oral interpretation may also be fairly and accurately described as the fundamental and intellectual core of acting, singing and storytelling. As such, it is complementary to the technical elements of voice and movement, which an artist may use to fully realize his or her performance. To put the comparison in Aristotelian terms, the employment of voice and movement technique is opsis (“spectacle”) while oral interpretation is, conceptually, melopoiia (“music technique”). The oral interpreter must rely on his or her voice alone, for movement is restricted as in a recording like the one reviewed here.

Let me say so from the top: Boyd Gaines is a superb reader. He is able to present the various voices of the novel skillfully so that the listener is never confused. Across the River and Into the Trees is a novel of voices. Much of the story is revealed via conversations over the time of the novel: the colonel and his driver, the colonel and his contessa, the colonel and the staff in the hotel. Gaines uses his vocal talent to distinguish each speaker, making the dialogue flow in a way that assists in carrying the meaning of this story of war, love, and death.

Ernest Hemingway published Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) after a decade during which he had published no new fiction. His only book between For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and Across the River and Into the Trees was Men at War (1942), an anthology of war stories. The title comes from the last words of US Civil War General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. Across the River and Into the Trees tells the story of the last days of Colonel Richard Cantwell, who has survived two world wars only to die of a heart attack. However, despite its being a bestseller for 21 weeks (with 7 weeks at #1), the novel was thoroughly savaged by the critics, who used such phrases as “a thoroughly bad book,” “Hemingway at his worst,” and “a synthesis of everything that is bad in his previous work.” Critics did not respond but Hemingway’s readers did.

The story the novel relates is deceptively simple. Following the Second World War a fifty-year-old American colonel visits the site where he was nearly killed during the First World War, spends three days in Venice, duck hunting, eating, drinking, and making love to a nineteen-year-old Italian contessa. His nostalgic liberty over, Colonel Cantwell anticipates his death by quoting the last words of Stonewall Jackson to his aide, then crawls into the back seat of his staff car and dies of a heart attack. 

But Across the River and Into the Trees is more complex than it might initially appear. In a 1950 interview, Hemingway responded to the charge that not much happens in the novel by noting that he had included “the defense of the Piave [River], the breakthrough in Normandy, the taking of Paris” and the bloody battle for the Hurtgen Forest that he himself had witnessed as a correspondent. While the plot of a doomed love affair and the premature death of his protagonist occupy the foreground, the haunting specter of the colonel’s wartime experiences emerges in the stories he tells his mistress Renata. The themes of war, loss, and love are present here, and also the notion of truth-telling that so haunted Hemingway in all of his fiction. Lies in the service of truth.

Gaines’s reading of the novel gives more life and sparkle to the conversations than reading the text, and as a result, the stories within the story emerge slowly from the dialogue. The usual criticism of the Hemingway female, e.g., Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, and Renata in this work, that “no one really talks like that,” disappears when listening to this reading.

Gaines brings out the pain, the arrogance, the loss and the fear of Colonel Cantwell along with his doomed love for Renata.

Bob Lane  is the co-author of  Finding Patterns in Hemingway and Camus: Construction of Meaning and Truth an essay on A Farewell to Arms by Robert D. Lane and Steven M. Lane which is available on line here: http://www.davidgagne.net/index.php?p=6113.

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