Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Starter Wife

Hadley Hemingway
The Paris Wife by Paul McLain (Doubleday Canada, 2011) 314 pp.

Paula McLain strikes the perfect note assuming the modest fictional voice of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, the Starter Wife if you will. He had four in total and innumerable lovers in between: Hadley Richardson (1921-27), Wife #2* (1927-40), Martha Gellhorn (1940-45) and Mary Welsh (1946-61). Look at the time lines above, married at 22, Hemingway was never without a woman (or two) in his life.

The couple met in Chicago shortly after the First World War through mutual friends and married quickly as Hemingway was assigned to work overseas. Initially he thought they would end up in Rome but Paris was their ultimate destination. Hadley was eight years older than Hem, more stable, quieter, which seemed to be what Hem was seeking at the time.

So many small and lovely details seem to hit the mark about Hem's personality (or at least my perception of him): his persistent and intense loneliness - only someone who feared to be alone would marry so obsessively and frequently; his insecurity about his masculinity; his fear of the dark attributable to his WWI experience; his obsession with Spain and machismo manifested in his interest in bullfighting and boxing; the realistic description of Paris as being, for this young, impoverished American couple with no means, as not lovely and romantic initially but cheap, ugly and mean.

Hadley, son John "Bumby", Ernest
Hadley, too, is lovingly and realistically portrayed: her fear that she is not chic enough nor interesting enough among the bohemian literati in Paris; her being consigned to the "wives' corner" (joining Gertrude Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas and Ezra Pound's wife Dorothy Shakespeare) when Ernest is with his peers; her loneliness when Hem is on assignment in another country; her loneliness as a mother tending an ill child.

One Globe & Mail reviewer recently described Hadley as a bore ... I disagree. Another reviewer described her as an "unfashionable homebody". This seems unnecessarily harsh. She was a traditional wife, devoted to husband and child and is portrayed as utterly confident in Ernest's talents. She is not glamorous, she is not distinguished but faithful, stable, and that most Hemingway of adjectives - "true".

The book only infrequently veers into parody and usually it is when she describes Hem as he is often remembered or caricatured in print - cheerfully knocking down friend and/or foe in boxing matches, obsessed with bull fighting or talking about writing "one true sentence", the drinking binges, the bullying temperament. Perhaps we know too much about Hemingway, his vices and peccadilloes. It is inevitable that these elements are touched upon as they make up his larger than life legend but how many times must we see him knock down an opponent in a "friendly" bout or pretend to be a toreador?

One winces a bit when Hadley parrots what sounds like dialogue from Hemingway's books, describing her husband as “fine and strong and weak and cruel.” McLain is at her best when she avoids these cliches.
In a manner, this is a book of suspense ... because you know that the marriage will end and he will meet another woman and divorce Hadley - will it be Kitty Cannell whom Hem seems to loath initially; the aristocratic Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises; the fashion writer Pauline Pfeiffer or her lovely sister?

The marital scenes are best - tense or tender. She wants a child, he does not. She loses all of his written work one fatal day on a train when she had intended to bring it to him during a trip. He proposes a marital arrangement which would include the woman who would eventually become wife number 2. She even briefly and madly considers it. Why not he asks - Ezra Pound is doing it, his good friend Harold Loeb has a similar arrangement. Ford Maddox Ford has moved in the writer Jean Rhys right into his home. Then Hadley wisely demurs and seeks a divorce.

Paris, Spain, Toronto - home to the Hemingways at various times - are all vividly evoked. Paris is dirty and colouful, peopled by prostitutes, down and out writers and bohemians, dance hall music and seedy cafes. Okay Toronto not so much ... Toronto is just ... cold. And windy and wintery.

Wife #2 - guess who?
Where McLain falters is in the pencil thin characterizations of the other literary greats - F. Scott Fitzgerald is a irresponsible drunk and his wife Zelda is, it is implied, crazy and mean-spirited as well as a lousy mother; Ezra Pound is brilliant but likely insane; James Joyce is odd but brilliant; the very affluent couple Sara and Gerald Murphy are basically good but shallow people with too much money and time on their hands. These are thin caricatures and it would have been more useful to have more nuanced characterizations of such important personages.

Still, the narrative voice is lovely, rich in detail and utterly convincing. We understand why Hadley still loves Hem at the end and her sorrow at his death some forty years later.

She lingers in his mind too and is very much a part of the narrative in A Moveable Feast which he wrote about the Paris years thirty years after he left her. But she was his wife then you protest - of course he would write about her. Not necessarily so ... Hadley was present during very many of the scenes described in The Sun Also Rises when the couple and friends went to see the bullfights in Pamplona and the book featured several real people who made that trip with Hemingway. There is nary a mention of Hadley in it - or any allusion to a wife. He does, however, make the main male protagonist Jake impotent - how'd you like them apples, Paris wife?

* Pauline Pfeiffer

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