Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife -- by Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway was an Esquire magazine kind of writer. A pin-up boy for machismo. (Esquire, this month asking writers everywhere to define what makes a man a man, is asking what manliness is in this decade, and the writers have answers for all to chew on, in print and online.)
But let us return to Ernest, whose harshest angst mainly seems to have involved himself, and which wife would best accommodate his needs--laced, at least in the early days, with worries about money. But I am too cruel. He was a good writer. I like much of his work. Ernest was good. And Ernest was a man. But maybe not a good man. And perhaps I digress again, as I mimic his terse style.
In McLain's narrative, a novel meant to spin out some of the emotional turnpoints in what is already a pretty well-researched life, she paints a portrait of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Mostly, we get Hadley's point of view. She is with him five years, during which the first baby Hemingway is born and graced with one of the silly nicknames their crowd of friends seemed to have in great supply.
In what is a variation on an age-old story, the adventurous, hard-drinking writer continues to seek fame and good drinking spots in a frivolous world while his less-adventuresome, equally hard-drinking and slightly maternal wife Hadley slowly gives up her interests for his happiness. Thank God they paid a nanny to step in when that required accompanying him on binges and expeditions. That seems archaic now, but this was the 1920s, when gaiety and women's lib were not co-existent. (Unless one was Gertrude Stein.)
I'm not sure I buy all of this tale, but there is a large body of research behind Hemingway's much-married life, and that supports at least the basics. Married four times, he ended his life in suicide when it all became too much, leaving a small fortune to his cats--dozens of whom still lounge about his old Florida Keys home.
But that was in the 60s, not in the rip-roaring '20s.
There is fascinating detail, too, about Hemingway's insecurity as a young writer, unproven and unknown, and his efforts to stick to writing despite the despair of rejection after rejection. Any writer can identify with that. The Hemingways were a celebrated couple, living the fast life among the disenchanted. Hemingway added it to his short stories while the idea simmered for a novel about matadors and disconnected, disenchanted American ex-pats. It would become "The Sun Also Rises," perhaps his greatest novel. For many nights, and some days on end, they caroused with the likes of other noted writers who drank between the lines: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein. That he produced it in such uncomfortable circumstances as the couple were inhabiting is a tribute to focus and dedication. Remember, he was a top-notch foreign correspondent in the days when that was a real profession. When he wrote, he wrote hard. When he drank, he drank harder. (It would all become part of "A Moveable Feast," published after his 1961 death.)
Hemingway the writer--sharp as a tack. Hemingway the man--watch out! He stomped all over Hadley's pitiful heart, and she forgave him. He was self-absorbed, drunk quite often, and terribly depressed when things weren't going well. He was also a brilliant writer and journalist. Ah, the creative life.
I grabbed his short stories from my bookshelf and found that reading them as they were mentioned in Hadley's narrative (only brief segments are in Ernest's voice) gave me insight into his life. This added a dimension to the reading that elevates the story as well.
McLain's writing is light, conversational -- as if poor Hadley is confiding in the reader as she shares the passion and despair of her time with him. Being older, wiser (and having the benefit of knowing the outcome), the reader will sympathize with her naivete and her dedication to being a good wife to a demanding man.
"The Paris Wife" is an interesting story. It doesn't tell us anything new about Ernest Hemingway, but it does bring him to life in a new way, through Hadley's perception.