Lesley M.M. Blume
First the good news: the book is well-researched and well written. If you have no knowledge of Hemingway and want to get a feel for how he worked and lived in Paris in the years leading up to the publication of his book The Sun Also Rises, this is a good book for you.
Then the bad news: I don’t understand the reason the author spent so much time and energy writing a book about a man she obviously despises. It is painful to read.
92 years ago, Hemingway thinly disguised real people and put their hijinks into a book. They are all dead, as is the world he wrote about. Why dig up all the dirt and rehash all Hemingway’s betrayals, small and large, and put them all together in a portrait that there is no need to read? By this time, we all know he was a drunk and a womanizer. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he wrote some of the most deathless prose that changed literature forever.
His work stands on its own. If we start judging writers on their personal lives, who can stand?
Hemingway goes in and out of fashion. I liked him when I was a teen, and I like him now. Even this book, which has no plot, but is a character study, pleases me. At times he sounds like a parody of himself, and the colonel constantly addressing his young (19) mistress as ‘Daughter’ seems a little creepy. Those things aside, this book has a melancholy beauty all its own. Perhaps part of this is due to its setting in Venice, a town that embodies melancholy beauty for me.
The love relationship between a precocious young aristocrat and a broken-down army office was entirely believable. We are not told where he met her or how the relationship formed, but rather presented with it fully formed and nearing its end. The colonel is aware of his approaching death and takes what sweetness is offered in this last relationship.
The title is from the last words of Gen. Stonewall Jackson as he lay dying on the battlefield and serves as an appropriate epitaph for the dying colonel. Hemingway is very tender in this treatment of an old soldier and his last love, the beautiful and tender Renata.