The Colonel and the Contessa

Ernest Hemingway with Adriana Ivencich, who was the inspiration for the contessa in Across the River and Into the Trees

I can’t say I’m having a lot of fun with Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. I keep feeling like I’m missing something, and I’m not sure I care what it is.

It’s about a colonel in the US Army occupation forces in Italy who, we gather, is not long for this world due to a heart condition.

He goes on a duck shoot with a bunch of people and then we flash back to the previous two days which he has spent in Venice with his girlfriend, who is nineteen years old (he’s 50) and a contessa from one of the city’s oldest families. They have a palace.

The reader gleans this information bit by bit from a sparse narrative and a lot of dialogue, and it takes a lot of work, especially since a lot of references that Hemingway might expect his readers to get at the time are now dated.

The main theme of the book seems to be the fact that the colonel used to be a general, but is not anymore because he lost a regiment or a battalion or some large portion of an army, due to misguided orders which he had to obey.

He and the contessa stroll and dine and shop around Venice, and there’s some heavy petting aboard a gondola (I think. The text is ambiguous.)

And since they both know the town well, there’s a lot of amusing banter with the bartenders and waiters and the manager of the hotel, the gran maestro, some of whom served with the colonel when he was in the Italian Army in World War I.

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Italian Army during World War I.

And she keeps asking him about the war (the second one) and the lost regiment, and I think the idea is she wants him be at peace before he dies.

But mainly, I guess, it’s about two people making the most of what they know is a short amount of time.

So they often say how much they love one another until it’s a little like Jerry Seinfeld and his girlfriend calling each other ‘schmoopie,’ but you can kind of skip over that, and it does reach a certain level of poignancy.

A lot of it is funny, too. He teaches her to speak American, so after breakfast she offers her hand to the gran maestro and says, “Put it there, pal. This grub is tops.”

Then she asks the colonel how they announced breakfast back on the ranch when he was a boy. He says the cook would say, “Come and get it, you sons of bitches, or I’ll throw it away.”

“I must learn that for in the country,” she says, referring to the family’s chateau. “Sometimes when he have the British Ambassador and his dull wife for dinner I will teach the footman, who will announce dinner, to say, ‘Come and get it, you son of bitches, or we will throw it away.'”

The colonel and his buddies have this funny club called the Order of the Knights of Brutadelli, named for a war profiteer from Milan who publicly accused his young wife of having “deprived him of his judgment through her extraordinary sexual demands.”

There are a lot of jokes about Brutadelli throughout the book, and near the end the colonel tells the contessa the order’s “Supreme Secret”:

“Love is love and fun is fun. But it is always so quiet when the gold fish die.”

I get it. Sort of.