There is no end to our fascination with Ernest Hemingway. Several books and dozens of articles a year are devoted to aspects of his life and work. They become more and more narrow in scope — for example there is a recent book entitled “Hemingway at Eighteen” by Steve Paul — but they still tell great stories. This one, “Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse,” can be included.
In 1950, after a relatively long silence, Ernest Hemingway published “Across the River and Into the Trees,” generally considered to be his least successful novel.
Set in Venice, about 1948, the novel tells of the love affair between Col. Richard Cantwell, aged about 50, a veteran of World War II, and his much younger love, Renata, 18 years old, an Italian countess.
Before one even begins the book, we read that there are “no real people in this volume.” The novel is dedicated to his wife, Mary, “With Love.”
An entire essay could be written unpacking the front matter.
The novel most decidedly has characters taken from real life —cthe Colonel is based largely on Hemingway’s buddy Colonel “Buck” Lanham, and the countess Renata was based, without a doubt, on Adriana Ivancich, an aristocratic Italian girl, recently graduated from convent school.
Andrea di Robilant lays out the ways in which the novel “Across the River and Into the Trees” is based very much on the relationship between Hemingway and Adriana.
Although Hemingway had served in Italy in World War I, he had never been to Venice. On a duck hunt to which Adriana had also been invited, Ernest first caught sight of her and was struck by the 18-year-old’s youthful beauty: “She had jet black hair, beautiful dark eyes, slender legs, and a svelte, youthful silhouette.” “What he liked best, though, was her straight black hair.” He felt as if struck by lightning, in much the same way as we saw happen with Michael Corleone in Sicily.
Ernest, going on 50, was infatuated, in thrall, overcome. He sought every opportunity to be with her and she, shyly at first, obliged. They would meet secretly in small piazzettas, walk, talk, have lunch together and take the occasional ride in a closed gondola which, as readers of the novel know, can lead to secret mischief.
Throughout, Ernest and Adriana claimed the affair was platonic, with only the rare kiss, and this is probably the case. She was an innocent, if a very flirtatious innocent, and he was the most famous writer in the world.
(And one of the most commercially successful. In 1948, his agent sold the film rights to a story Hemingway had written in Paris in the '20s, “My Old Man,” for $45,000, “roughly half a million in today’s currency.” A couple of years later he sold the magazine rights to “The Old Man and the Sea” to Life for $40,000. Hemingway’s Italian royalties were honestly kept track of in Milan, but the lira could not be taken out of the country, which explains in part how Hemingway could keep a suite at the Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice for weeks at a time.)
The relationship began in Venice, and then Adriana and her mother accepted an invitation to visit the finca, Hemingway’s place outside Havana. Her brother Gianfranco was already there.
All of this drove Mary, Mrs. Hemingway, to distraction and very nearly ended Hemingway’s fourth marriage. But Mary, with superhuman patience, endured.
Older man/younger woman foolishness is not unusual. What is intriguing about Adriana is, as the title suggests, her power as a muse. As we know, muses inspire artists, and Hemingway needed a jolt. His epic World War II novel of air, land and sea was not going well.
Reinvigorated by Adriana, in some psychic or spiritual way not easy to fathom, Hemingway wrote with renewed, youthful energy. “Across the River and Into the Trees” may not have been great, but while Adriana was in Cuba, he turned out “The Old Man and the Sea,” his best work in decades, and won the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The “affair,” if that is what we might call it, was never properly secret, but when newspapers in France and Italy began writing stories about Adriana and her married lover, 31 years older, Adriana’s mother panicked, feeling her daughter’s chances for a good marriage match were being injured. The Ivanciches left Cuba in haste and returned to their home in the Veneto.
Maybe it was just the old guy showing off, or perhaps the very condition of being helplessly, foolishly in love triggered creative powers that had been waning. Either way, the result was some fine fiction to be enjoyed by Ernest’s readers.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.