This is not an adventurous tale. It’s set in post-war Venice and is a dialogue between a retiring colonel (demoted from general) and a young Italian countess aged 19. The colonel’s health is failing and he feels the restrictive effects of his age, whereas the countess is in the prime of her life and eager to understand the man and what life has brought him.
Against his rational judgement, he falls deeply in love with the girl and ponders the future for them, realising he doesn’t have one – either with her or as himself. His demotion to colonel is something that has stained the recent years of his life and which he carries with him as an ever-present burden, a reminder of his failure at this late stage of his career.
It’s a bittersweet encounter, reminiscent of Death in Venice.
Hemingway wrote this work after a renewed acquaintance with Venice after the war, a place he loved to visit. It was to be his last major novel. His experience of the Second World War and its destruction not only of cities and countries but also of the spirit of humankind is behind the meeting between this exhausted and defeated colonel and a fresh young girl. His relationship is effectively an act of defiance, one of resilience; love has to conquer all.
She knows their relationship is a somewhat artificial one, but their mutual respect, which turns into love, ensures that these things do not matter. She represents the future, the joy and the power of love, whereas he brings only the sad wisdom of what he has experienced and seen during the war.
It is Hemingway’s cry of hope for the human spirit after the devastation of a world war.
This review was first published on the author’s Facebook page in February 2019.