The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Hemingway’s voice has been heard the world over. His persona and perspective reflected from his prolific writings. Now fifty years after his death, Paula McLain has gleaned through facts and whatever that’s true to create the novel The Paris Wife, revealing the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife.

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Hadley’s voice speaks from the shadow. It reflects the thoughts of one who had seen it all from the beginning. Within seven short years, she had witnessed the transformation of a disgruntled journalist into a promising, full-fledged novelist. And she was the one who, after only three months of marriage, sailed with Hemingway to Paris and began her fateful role of the ever supportive and loving companion. How we need to listen to her side of the story.

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There are those who have read The Paris Wife and then want to read more of Hemingway’s works.  For me, after reading the book, I want to read more of Paula McLain’s.  It’s interesting that her MFA is in poetry, and that she has published two volumes of poetry collections before this novel. I wonder if it takes a poet to write prose like this, highly sensitive and nuanced, while surprisingly void of ornaments. I find the no-frills narrative style of McLain’s a bit like Hemingway’s, spare and direct, like his memoir A Moveable Feast. Consider something like this as Hadley recounted her earlier life:

And everything was very good and fine until it wasn’t.

What wasn’t fine is an understatement. It’s ironic that what happened to both Hadley and Ernest was quite similar. A domineering mother and a depressed father whose fate led to suicide by a self-inflicted gun shot wound. We know now that Hemingway himself could not escape such a fateful end himself.

But from the start, it was love at first sight for Hadley and Ernest as they met in a house party in Chicago, after Ernest returned home from the war. He was 21, she 29. A year after they met, on September 3, 1921, they were married.

Hadley’s voice captured me right away from the very beginning. I like her down-to-earth persona, her self-deprecating anecdotes as a simple American gal in Paris among the ‘lost generation’. I like it that she played Rachmaninoff and Chopin and not jazz-savvy. I like her ignorance in fashion and avoidance of the dazzling Parisian glitz and glamour:

 If the women in Paris were peacocks, I was a garden-variety hen.

It’s interesting too reading how other writers advise Ernest. They point to the bare essentials, as Hadley recalls Gertrude Stein saying:

Three sentences about the color of the sky. The sky is the sky and that’s all. Strong declarative sentences, that’s what you do best. Stick to that.”

As Stein spoke Ernest’s face fell for a moment, but then he recovered himself. She’d hit on something he’d recently begun to realize about directness, about stripping language all the way down. “… leave only what’s truly needed.” She’d said.

Or this from Ezra Pound:

Cut everything superfluous… Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t tell readers what to think. Let the action speak for itself.

Hadley was with him all the way. When she was later pregnant, Hadley felt the need to go for better birthing care in Canada to deliver her child. I was amazed to read about such a currently hot issue in their time. They sailed to Canada in September, 1923. One month later, Bumby was born.

They lived on the fourth floor of an apartment on Bathurst Street. And since I’m in Toronto now as I write this review, I’m able to go over there and take these photos for my readers. Currently, the building at 1597-1599 Bathurst Street is a comfortable and elegant looking five-storey apartment aptly named The Hemingway.

A plaque is placed at the entrance to mark this historic site:

It reads:

Ernest Hemingway

American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star, where he became friends with novelist Morley Callaghan and writer/broadcaster Gordon Sinclair. He returned to Paris, France, where he began his career as a novelist, producing such masterpiece as “The Sun Also Rises”, “A Farewell To Arms”, & “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

Toronto Historical Board
1985

Ernest had worked for the Toronto Star before, and had developed an amicable working relationship with his boss John Bone. But this time he encountered tumultuous problems with his new boss, causing him to shorten his stay. This is what I found a block away from The Hemingway apartment:

Four months after their son Bumby was born, in January, 1924, the Hemingways sailed back to Paris. Upon seeing Gertrude, Ernest said:

I know we meant to be gone a year, but four months is a year in Canada.

I just can’t help but smile upon reading this. Interpret whatever way you will.

Once back in Paris, Ernest discarded his journalist hat and went all out to pursue his dream of a published writer, encouraged by his mentor Gertrude Stein. He began to be noticed and gain publishing success. And with success came fame, and fame, a different circle of friends, richer, more glamorous and drunk. Within their group of acquaintance, people were falling for each other’s spouses, messy and totally lost.

Hadley began to fall out of it all. One time at a tense exchange among the group, she was so fed up that she had to excuse herself and left early with Don Stewart, their writer friend. And here’s the sentence that leaves such an impression on me:

“Before we’d even gotten to the door, the gap had closed around the table and you couldn’t even tell I’d been there.”

The American journalist for Vogue magazine Pauline Pfeiffer soon became Ernest’s new preoccupation. She had not only won his heart, but Hadley’s trust and friendship. But the balance was bound to tip. Hadley’s innocence was soon shattered by betrayal from both her friend and her husband; her naivety ebbed away as she watched helplessly the painful disintegration of her marriage and small family.

I’d chosen my role as supporter for Ernest, but lately the world had tipped, and my choices had vanished. When Ernest looked around lately, he saw a different kind of life and liked what he saw. The rich had better days and freer nights. They brought the sun with them and made the tides move. Pauline was a new model of woman and why couldn’t he have her…

When I think back on Hemingway’s memoir of those Paris years, A Moveable Feast, in which he writes about his early love with Hadley, I can’t help but feel for both of them. How can we command our own feelings, passion, love? The bull fighting scenes in Pamplona which mesmerized Ernest so had become such an apt metaphor… the bulls charging madly through the narrow streets towards the ring, aroused by a mere spot of red, driven by brute instincts and raw impulses, yet all come to the same gory end in the ring.

In the book, McLain has their writer friend Don Stewart declared:

I can take the bulls and the blood. It’s this human business that turns my stomach.

You might ask: “But is this all true?” After all, this is only a novel. From his notes on A Moveable Feast, Hemingway stated that all was fiction. Conversely, in McLain’s The Paris Wife, she has this quote from Hemingway:

 There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.

Looks like it’s for us readers to pick and choose.

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, published by Bond Street Books, Random House, 2011, 314 pages.

You might like to read my review of:

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.

Midnight In Paris, a film by Woody Allen.

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway

Reading A Moveable Feast is like walking along the sea shore. On the fine sandy beach you see many attractive shells, but you don’t have a bucket with you. You pick the finest ones and put them in your pockets, until they’re full. But every step you take further, you see more that you want to keep. This post is too limited for me to display all the shells I’ve collected, but allow me to just pour them out from my pockets, without sorting, sand and all.

I first read about the term “Moveable Feast” while sitting in an Anglican church in Vancouver, flipping through the The Book of Common Prayer. After some googling later, I got the idea. A feast in the liturgical calendar that you commemorate no matter which date it falls on year after year. In the Foreword of this restored edition, Hemingway’s son Patrick (with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer) writes:

The complexity of a moveable feast lies in the calculation of the calendar date for Easter in a given year, from which it is simple enough then to assign a calendar date to each and every moveable feast for a given year. Palm Sunday is seven days before Easter.

A memorable experience that will follow you all the years of your life. You’ll cherish it whenever and wherever you are. Hemingway’s friend A. E. Hotchner suggested this title. Author of the biography Papa Hemingway, Hotchner recalls Hemingway once said to him:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

Like Rick says to Ilsa in “Casablanca”: “We’ll always have Paris.” Same sentiment.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir written from notes he had forgotten in two steamer trunks stored at the Ritz Hotel in Paris since 1928. In 1956 he repossessed the treasure trove, upon the urging of the hotel management. The book details his experience while living in Paris from 1921 to 1926, when the author was in his early 20’s. The memoir was first published posthumously in 1964. The Paris Years was a period when Hemingway, just married Hadley Richardson, young and care-free, decided to give up journalism to strive at being a novelist.

He would write in a rented room or in a café over café crème,
meet Gertrude Stein for critique of his writing, go back home for lunch with wife Hadley, or have oysters and wine in a restaurant, socialize with Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and other expats, borrow piles of books from Sylvia Beach’s library in her bookshop Shakespeare and Company, visit Luxembourg gardens and museum…

Two people, then, could live comfortably and well in Europe on five dollars a day and could travel.

No wonder Gil in “Midnight in Paris” dreams of such a life.

What strikes me initially is Hemingway’s frankness, sometimes blatant description of his opinion about the people he met. Like the first time he saw the artist Wyndham Lewis through Ezra Pound:

I watched Lewis carefully without seeming to look at him, as you do when you are boxing, and I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man… I tried to break his face down and describe it but I could only get the eyes. Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.

According to grandson Sean Hemingway who edited and wrote the introduction of this restored edition, Hemingway developed his sharp eye and ear during these Paris years. Here’s an account of Scott Fitzgerald when Hemingway first met him in the Dingo bar:

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose.

This is only a little excerpt in a two page description of Scott’s appearance. It’s sentences like these that stand out for me. They all point to the writer at work: observing.

I kept on looking at him closely and noticed…”

“I kept on observing Scott.

And putting down in words later:

I wasn’t learning very much from looking at him now except that he had well shaped, capable-looking hands, not too small, and when he sat on one of the bar stools I saw that he had very short legs. With normal legs he would have been perhaps two inches taller.

But it was Scott’s talents despite his eccentricities and alcoholism that formed the building blocks of their friendship.

When I had finished the book [The Great Gatsby] I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how preposterously he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend. …   If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.

It is perhaps with such candour and devotion in writing that he constantly sought to “write one true sentence.” Woody Allen has grasped the essence in this juicy line from “Midnight in Paris”:

No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.

The restored edition brings back sections missing in the earlier 1964 publication which was edited by fourth and last wife Mary. According to Sean Hemingway, this restored work represents the content that Hemingway himself had intended the book to have, with the chapter “Nada y Pues Nada” (Nothing And Then Nothing) written three months before his suicide.

The second last chapter “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” shows he was remorseful over the breakdown of his first marriage to Hadley towards the end of his Paris days. A mutual friend they both knew, journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, came in between them. “You love them both now… Everything is split inside of you and you love two people now instead of one.”

But A Moveable Feast belongs to Earnest and Hadley and their young son Bumby.  “… this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” As a reader, I feel a sense of loss as I come to the end, for Earnest and Hadley were so much in love the first few years in Paris:

She: ‘And we’ll never love anyone else but each other.’

He: ‘No. Never.’

Their 2-room rental walk-up with no electricity and no hot water had been a haven of warm meals and intimate talks. It was the time when he was “a young man supporting a wife and child … learning to write prose.” Their short marriage lasted only six years. In 1927 Hemingway married Pauline, four months after divorcing Hadley.

The last section at the end of the book is entitled “Fragments”. These are “false starts”, beginning paragraphs of an introduction Hemingway tried to write for this book. Interestingly, every one of these attempts starts with: “This book is fiction.” Many include this sentence: “I have left out much and changed and eliminated and I hope Hadley understands.” In another fragment he wrote: “No one can write true fact in reminiscences…”

I’m baffled. But maybe unnecessarily. From our very subjective mind, our often hazy view of what did happen and what we wish to have happened and what could have happened, we conjure up a fusion. Should there be a clear line separating them? It’s because the demarkation of fact and fantasy is fluid that we can appreciate the arts, such as the film “Midnight in Paris.” The events that happen to Gil after midnight would remain fondly with him as reality, so real that they change his decision regarding his future. Facts or fiction… or fusion?

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A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway, published by Scribner, NY, 2009, 240 pages. Foreword by Patrick Hemingway, introduced and edited by Sean Hemingway.

This post is to participate in the Paris In July blogging event hosted by Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. You can also find another review of A Moveable Feast here at Dolce Bellezza.

To read my review of “Midnight In Paris”, CLICK HERE.

Photos: Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Writers’ portraits and The Library in Shakespeare and Company taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Aug. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Click on the following links for some insightful interviews:

National Post Interview with Sean Hemingway on the restored edition

Interview with Woody Allen on making “Midnight In Paris”