We both watched him. “I’ve told him there’s nothing between us, you know.”
“I’m not sure he hears it,” I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.
“Men hear what they like and invent the rest.”
Lady Duff Twysden and Hadley Richardson Hemingway, The Paris Wife
By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Isn’t that true of all of us, both men and women, we hear what we want and invent the rest?
Why read a 314 page novel about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, when Hemingway own roman à clef novel of their time together, The Sun Also Rises, leaves her out? Paula McLain’s 2011, The Paris Wife, gives us Hadley’s side of the story, but I’m left wondering why? McLean artistically recreates Hadley, and is a fine read, but for me at least, it brings up a lot of questions about using real people as characters in a novel. Hadley’s main claim to fame is for being Hemingway’s first wife, and second, for losing all his early manuscripts. To be honest, I read The Paris Wife, hoping to learn more about Hemingway, not Hadley, and I did, but The Paris Wife does make her a solid character now. Yet, is she a work of art, or historical footnote?
Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the two famous expats of The Lost Generation that lived in Paris in the 1920s, continue to draw readers into a moment of history that has become ever more glamorous. This era even gave Woody Allen inspiration for Midnight in Paris. Professors, scholars and bookworms are drawn to this small group of writers because they defined their times like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs defined The Beats, and Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Pissarro defined The Impressionists. These artistic movements generate addictive fascination in us. We especially love the Bloomsbury group, Lost Generation and Beats because of their free love drama and sexual complications.
Paula McLain’s novel was inspired by a 1991 biography Hadley by Gioia Diliberto, which was republished in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife to ride the coattails of McLain’s bestseller. Obviously, McLain found Hadley fascinating, and so did the reading public. Interest in Hemingway’s wives continues, because last year, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood came out, that covers all four of Papa’s wives in 317 pages.
I found great sympathy for Hadley Richardson while reading The Paris Wife, and thought Hemingway was an asshole, not only to his wife, but to his friends and mentors. But I already knew that. I will admit that The Paris Wife brings things into a new focus, but I also have to ask why we want to know more about Hadley. We do want to know more, but why? Hadley was a decent woman. She was reasonably good looking. She played the piano. But adding everything up, she wasn’t very interesting. Definitely not like Zelda Fitzgerald. But if enough writers reincarnate her into new stories, will she become the new Zelda of The Lost Generation?
What I’d like to explore is why we spend time recreating Hadley Richardson long after she’s dead. Why are we trying to make her into a memorable character of literary history? If Paula McLain’s novel had been entirely fiction, would the love story in it been worthy of reading? McLain is confined by fact, so the scope of her plot, characters, emotion and drama are limited. Given free reign, would her fictional Hadley been so dull and mundane? Hadley was part of the gang of dynamic people that Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises, so why does he leave her out of the story? He portrays himself as man sexually crippled by the war? Jake Barnes, the Hemingway character, can’t chase Lady Brett, so he’s the observer of her wild affairs, much like we assume Hemingway was in real life – or did he actually get lucky? Did Hemingway see Hadley as a kind of chastity belt holding him back, or was she just not as colorful as his friends, and thus unworthy of being a character in his novel? Or was it even petty resentment and revenge?
Whenever I read about a historical person fictionalized I’m always anxious to know what is fiction and what is nonfiction. I knew some of this story before reading The Paris Wife. I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own memoirs of the time, and I’ve read The Sun Also Rises three times, which The Paris Wife describes Hemingway writing – the why and how. The Paris Wife also shows us Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald just after The Great Gatsby came out, during the tumultuous time that Fitzgerald was struggling to write Tender Is The Night.
McLain has picked a juicy period and place to cover, but then so did these famous novelists. How many views of these events and people do we need? I’m still willing to read more. But I believe we need to ask why. Is this a feminist take on literary history? If so, why hasn’t Jean Rhys become famous? She wrote her own novels, lived the wild life, was part of love triangles, and was connected to Ford Maddox Ford, another character in The Paris Wife.
The Paris Wife covers Paris when many influential novels were written and their authors led lives that would generate countless biographies. Is Hadley’s unique perspective all that valuable? Hadley has now appeared in at least two novels, a memoir and many biographies, but she’s left out of the roman à clef novel by her famous husband. Isn’t that telling. In McClain’s novel, Hadley struggles to understand why too.
Of course new writers will continue to find peripheral individuals who were connected to The Lost Generation to give another perspective on this cozy history. There’s no reason not to write about Hadley. In recent years, books by and about all the women who hooked up with Jack Kerouac are coming out. Yet, the end result seems to paint more details about the male writers, and not to make their women more significant.
The more I read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, the more I realize I would not have liked them as people. I feel sorry for their women, and their friends. They were all self-centered drunks who were obsessed with making themselves famous by writing up their own lives. Hemingway used Hadley and when he found a more useful woman, cast her aside. Yet, what makes Hadley famous now is Hemingway. What drew Hadley to him? Hadley was 29 when she snagged the 21 year old Ernest. Hemingway was broken by the war, struggling to start a career, screwed up by an overbearing mother and haunted by a father who killed himself. Hadley had her own psychological demons. She also had an overbearing mother and a father who committed suicide. Hemingway was obviously looking for a nurturing mother replacement, a lover, and a cheerleader, and Hadley fit the bill nicely.
Hemingway was an alpha male that woman chased after. He was exciting and beautiful to both women and men, so it’s clear why Hadley wanted him. But like many alpha males, he was a serial womanizer, so Hadley never had much of a chance. And from a literary history perspective, we have to ask, what value is she to the story? Even with Paula McLain’s loving portrait, Hadley’s image is impressionistic at best. We never see her in realistic detail.
Even when we read nonfiction how close are we getting to the truth? And when is fiction more insightful than nonfiction? In McLain’s novel she uses people’s real names. In Hemingway’s novel, the man who actually witness the events, recasts his friends as characters with new names. They aren’t meant to be photographic portraits. We don’t see Hadley in The Sun Also Rises even though she was there with Hemingway, hanging out with the same people. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter-ego, fictionally castrated, yearns for Lady Brett Ashley. Isn’t that psychological revealing way to portray himself in the novel? Years later, Hemingway does remember his wife in his memoir A Movable Feast, but isn’t it mostly guilt? He wants to apologize, but do we believe him?
In the end we’re fascinated by Hemingway and Hadley. But which is more important, the art, or the biography? Strangely enough, The Sun Also Rises is how most people see the Lost Generation, and it’s a lie, a fabrication, fiction. Hemingway distills time and memory like our dreams process our daily experiences. By fictionalizing Hadley, McLain is making her memorable in the same way Hemingway made his friends memorable. We remember Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell, and not Lady Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and Pat Guthrie. Which are more real, the fictional characters, or the people they were based on?
Literary biography can be a black hole sucking in facts searching for truth. If you get too close to the story, it can trap you inside the event horizon. For me, at some point, I get too close to these characters and start to dislike them. No matter how much I admire Hemingway’s skill with words, the more I know about him, the less I admire him as a person. The Paris Wife makes Hemingway into a real stinker – and here’s the real problem I have with the novel, I never see why Hadley loves him.
We learn why Hadley is attracted to Hemingway, why she needs him, why she admires him, why she wants to take care of him, but I never understood why she loves him. I think that’s true because we never understand why Hemingway loves Hadley. Love might not be something that can be conveyed in fiction or fact. We can describe romance and sex, but can we translate love into words? We can explain attraction, but can we put the ineffable into art? Even if we had high definition video of all the events in the book, could we ever know how people felt? Hadley says over and over again she loves Ernest, but that tells us nothing. We know she does because she puts up with so much. But I don’t think we ever feel what she feels.
Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we’re not recreating reality but art. We will never know Hadley and Hemingway. Novels like The Paris Wife have to stand alone as art. Bringing in facts from the past only confuses the issues even though we assume more facts bring more clarity. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Kerouac knew that, and that’s why they don’t stick to the facts.
The Paris Wife did make me wonder why Hemingway wasn’t more genuine in his novel and included himself and Hadley as man and wife. For such a macho guy, I think he was being a pussy. He obviously didn’t want to write honestly about his attraction to Duff (Lady Brett), or deal with Hadley’s hurt. Hemingway would get in with the bulls, but was too chicken to throw himself in the romantic ring where everyone was goring each other. I’ve got to give Kerouac credit for portraying his own faults in his novels. It will be hard now to read The Sun Also Rises without thinking about The Paris Wife. As works of art they will always have to stand alone, but as literary gossip, they are forever married.
If Hemingway had really loved Hadley, and understood her deeply, knowing her soul with that love, don’t you think she would have been characterized in The Sun Also Rises? Like the quote I open with, “Men hear what they like and invent the rest,” Hemingway remembers what he wants remembered, and invents the rest.