Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

Hemingway’s Paris – A Moveable Feast

Hemingway makes me think of the debate streaming though comment threads on Goodreads.  The debate centres on the issue of discussing an author in book reviews, Goodreads suggesting that reviews focus only on the content of a book and not stray into opinions about the personality or character of the author. Hemingway

Being a book review site, it may not seem like an unreasonable request, except that the site has allowed five years of historical reviews to build up without comment, guidance or reprimand against reviews that may have crossed this line and in the meantime a strong community of reviewers has developed, spreading its roots and reviews deep into the site. Unsurprisingly, the community is now rebelling against wilful deletions of reviews. Some are threatening to abandon the Goodreads ship while its Captain is said to be sailing on oblivious to mutiny in its hold.

I think of Hemingway because in A Moveable Feast, he writes not just about himself, he reflects on writers he was acquainted with in Paris and about life in that city after the First World War. He shares exactly the kind of opinions that are forbidden to reviewers today. However, he is not writing a book review, he is writing about life.

Apart from the delightful short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place, I have not read Hemingway since the trauma of having to study The Old Man and The Sea at school. I am sorry to say that I detested this novel and although nothing of the prose has stayed with me, a kind of nausea, akin to sitting in a rocking boat with no means of rowing it, engulfs me when remembering it. I didn’t understand at the time why I reacted like this, worse than boredom, it was bereft of literary merit according to my 13-year-old standards.

Knowing now of Hemingway’s deliberate intention to strip his prose bare and understanding my love of the metaphor and habit to underline and admire the more descriptive linguistic passages, I see that we are not a good pair. But having met the writer again through the lives of Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z, I was intrigued to read his non-fiction account of life in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

The chapters read like a series of vignettes, encapsulating the many aspects that made up his life during that time. He writes about the cafes he frequented and in particular the plight of two waiters, whom when the new management of the café decides it wants to attract a higher calibre of client, insists his employees shave their mustaches and wear a uniform. Hemingway and friend are poured overfull whiskeys by the waiter and they drink them in protest.

“They’re changing the management.” Evan said. “The new owners want to have a different clientele that will spend some money and they are going to put in an American bar. The waiters are going to be in white jackets, Hem, and they have been ordered to be ready to shave off their mustaches.”

“They can’t do that to André and Jean.”

“They shouldn’t be able to, but they will.”

Jean has had a mustache all his life. That’s a dragoon’s mustache. He served in a cavalry regiment.”

“He’s going to have to cut it off.”

He reflects on his habits as a writer and here we meet a man who was dedicated to his métier above all. He writes about his deliberate strategy to eliminate the adjective, to let the words stand alone without any qualifiers or modifiers, the naked verb. His aim is like the writing equivalent of meditation, de-cluttering the page instead of the mind. He would not have made a great meditator, as he was fearful of emptying the mind.

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

F.Scott.Fitzgerald,1921 Source: Wikipedia

F.Scott.Fitzgerald,1921 Source: Wikipedia

F.Scott Fitzgerald was a good friend. Both chapters that describe events with Fitzgerald show just how erratic his behaviour was and Hemingway suffers from having his writing discipline disrupted on a trip back to Paris from Lyon having recuperated a convertible car Scott and Zelda had abandoned due to the rain.

“I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.”

A Moveable Feast is an excellent read, sharing moments of life in Paris, we are introduced to some of Hemingway’s favourite cafés to write in, his conversations with Gertrude Stein and others about writing, up until he fell out of favour after publishing a mockery of another author’s work which she and others disapproved of, perceiving his act as disloyal to a fellow writer. He becomes a regular at the famous English bookshop Shakespeare & Co, where he is able to lend books, having no money to buy them and reads his way through Turgenev, D.H.Lawrence and Dostoevsky as well as striking up a friendship with the owner Sylvia Beach, a pleasant source of gossip as well as books.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler


Zelda Sayre

Born with an exotic name that lent itself to bright lights and a spirit that loved nothing more than to dwell under them, it is not surprising that Zelda Sayre’s life was illuminated and became of interest to so many who were less daring themselves but fascinated with her life and antics.

But just as light cannot exist without shadow, she would discover the darker underside of a life lived in the shadow of her husband, when she dared to pursue her own desire to be recognised as a professional in her own right.

ZZ: A Novel of Zelda is an excellent companion novel to The Paris Wife and one of an expanding collection that gathers around that group of artists, writers, wives and hangers-on of the “lost generation“, a term coined by a young French mechanic who was reprimanded for giving insufficient priority to repairs on Gertrude Stein’s Model T Ford and thus complained to his patron that they were all a “generation perdue“, those young people who served in the war, respected little and indulged themselves to immoderate excesses.

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a logical follow on read, having now read the fictionalised accounts of the two wives of these well-known writers and great friends who were in the midst of that post WWI group that sought a kind of writing utopia in Paris.

scott and zelda

Zelda and F.Scott Fitzgerald

While the utopia may have eluded them, their experiences would provide rich material for their writing, even if at the expense of some of their friends and loved ones. It is interesting to note that while their output during those early years was largely even, the Hemingways‘ lived quite frugally with an awareness of their financial struggle, while the Fitzgeralds‘ lived hedonistically in complete denial of theirs.

Zelda was reluctant to be lured away from Montgomery, Alabama by a complete dreamer and in the early days of their courtship actually threatened to dump F.Scott Fitzgerald unless he proved himself worthy and obtained his first serious publishing contract.

“I was so sure of our love then, so determined to prove to Mama and Daddy that we weren’t doing things wrong, just differently. There was no way to know that certainty  would one day become a luxury too.”

save me the waltzWhen Fitzgerald succeeds in getting that commitment  from his publisher to publish This Side of Paradise, she is ready to join him in New York and their life of adventure will begin.

From New York to Paris and the south of France, where Zelda throws herself into her own professional dance ambitions and is rewarded with an offer, which makes this reader wonder, what might have happened if…

“Scott and I both were awed by how cultured all these folks appeared to be, how intact they all were. For a change, Scott listened more than he talked. They spoke of painting and music and dance – their own work as well as other artists’ – with knowledge and candor and passion. If they felt rivalries, they expressed the situations as challenges, not jealousies.”

I came to this novel with no idea about Zelda or the role she played among the writing set of Paris and while much has been written in personal letters and hospital records documenting her mental health challenges and treatments, I find Therese Anne Fowler’s depiction of the character Zelda to be both realistic and sensitive  and portrayed in a way that is compelling to read. It has made me interested to read more about Zelda Fitzgerald and that period in history she was a part of; she was one of, if not the first young women referred to as a “flapper” of the 1920’s, a kind of “it girl” whose rise in society came about alongside a public contempt for prohibition and was described by Dr. R. Murray-Leslie, who criticized

“the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” Times 5 Feb 1920, p 9

They were a significant step away from accepting the lives of their mothers before them and while they accepted the lesser role in support of their husbands and were not quite suffragettes, they developed an awareness that women could be more outgoing and present in the relationship and even pursue a career, something that usually required marriage to be forfeited for.

highland hospitalThe sad truth was that all that freedom and lack of  meaningful purpose was not good for their mental health and whereas today one might be prescribed medication for depression, bi-polar disorder or spend time in rehab, in the 1920’s/1930’s it was off to the psychiatric asylum for electric shock treatments and a prognosis of hysteria or even worse schizophrenia, if  one showed signs or symptoms of not coping with it all.

If you enjoyed The Paris Wife or A Moveable Feast, this book should certainly be on your list to read. A riveting read and a thought-provoking insight into an exciting and turbulent period of cultural history.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

City of Love

The immense and almighty Notre Dame de Paris

I have been busy retracing the many steps of the monuments of Paris these past few days, so not much time for reading, although I did manage to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent ‘Prodigal Summer’ which I will write more of soon and following on from this glorious visit to Paris, I am now immersed in Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ keeping me in Paris for a few more days yet, albeit the 1920’s.

If you need any more proof that Paris is indeed the city of love, check out this superb photo I took of that beautiful feminine monument ‘La Tour Eiffel’, is that not a beautiful heart shining down on the population?

We took an evening stroll up to the Sacre Cœur cathedral, two minutes from where we were staying.  In fact I was babysitting that evening while friends from New Zealand were at a Bruce Springsteen concert, I have to say it was the best night looking after 3 children ever, practicing french phrases during dinner and an impressive after dinner promenade to one of the city’s marvels.

Here is a detail from one of the tower walls of L’Arc de Triomphe. I love the dramatic detail of the sculptures and wall friezes.

Despite the beautiful blue skies you see, it did indeed rain every day I was in Paris, it reminded me a little of New Zealand, that rain, sun, rain, sun, beautiful green trees.

However, something that only Paris can offer, her history of monarchs, uprisings, revolutions and battles and 60,000 square metres of art works in one museum alone and then there’s the people watching, all chairs facing the street for the best view, it’s amazing what you observe and overhear during the downing of une noisette (small coffee with a dash of milk).

Now back in Aix-en-Provence where the temperatures are consistently hot and as I got out of the car, I am greeted by the incessant noise of the cicadas, who have long announced the debut of summer and witnessed the emergence of one of these gigantic insects from its chrysalis on the wall right next to me, the moment before he too joined that eternal cacophony of sound reminiscent of the season.


Au revoir Paris, je reviens bientôt.

Dreams, Illusion, Reality – The Paris Wife

Reading Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’ I rapturously turned the pages, captivated in a cathartic way in the character of Hadley Richardson, whose story and perceptions I became absorbed with, whose life and relationships I was invested in as a reader and also as someone who has lived in France for six years. Yet at the end I am left feeling somewhat deceived.

‘The Paris Wife’ explores a brief passage in the life of 28 year old Hadley Richardson, from shortly after the death of her mother, when she meets and after a brief courtship, marries the much younger Ernest Hemingway, until their separation and subsequent divorce. Hemingway is a 21 year old war veteran and struggling journalist with his eyes set on Rome, until the writer Sherwood Anderson, convinces them the future lies in Paris.

The young couple embark on their journey, Hadley doing her best to support her husband and not burden him with her own insecurities. Neither glamorous nor ambitious, she is honest and good and able to provide Hemingway with an emotional foundation and stability that he has not been able to garner since his return from war, or perhaps earlier, when the arrival of a baby brother shattered the illusion of a special bond he believed he had with his mother. It is a pattern that will be repeated in his life, the attempt to recreate a safe, protective feeling akin to childhood with a woman, only for it to fall apart.

It is not long before cracks appear, Hemingway’s foreign assignment to Turkey bring back feelings of despair, displacement and the nightmares of war; walking in the rain, death, sickness and desperation in the air, his esteem low, he brings himself lower by acting on it. We learn this period was preceded by his breaking the ‘exclusive’ work contract with his employers without informing them – signs of a divide within himself – and Hadley’s discomfort with his dishonesty feeds the more paranoid of her instincts.

While in Paris, Hemingway spends his days writing, initially rejecting the cafés with their posing artists, though soon overcomes his distaste and discovers the joy of café life once they develop their own circle of friends. Hemingway’s obsession with corrida (bullfighting) result in numerous visits to Spain accompanied by friends and these sojourns become the basis of his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ about a group of expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermin in Pamplona.

One of the most striking and memorable moments supports a comment by Hemingway scholar Jamie Barlowe that Hadley Richardson “was a ‘true’ woman and not a ‘new’ woman of the early 19th century” and shows both how removed she was from their group and the reverence Hemingway held for her. Hemingway dedicates ‘The Sun Also Rises’ to Hadley and although she was there in person and recognises much of what happens in the novel, she is the one person from their circle that does not exist between its pages. She is hurt by the exclusion, though spared the humiliation. She was at a loss in the company of Lady Duff, whom Hemingway models the female character on, a honey pot of a woman who, oblivious to the neurotic attentions of the men, was present with a much ignored fiancé and drooled over by Hemingway and Harold who end up in fisticuffs over misplaced jealousies. Hadley’s recognition and special moment come in the most romantic and gory of gestures, when the much admired matador Cayetano Ordóñez makes eye contact with her from the bullring and publicly gifts her the rare token of the bull’s ear, bloody and warm from the soon to be sacrificed animal.

The deception is that the story and the author’s interest continue only as long as she is married to Hemingway, a mere six years, effectively cancelling her out as a character so soon, no longer interesting without the crutch of an infamous husband. Did her life cease to hold interest or meaning beyond those years; are we really only interested in her because she was married to Ernest Hemingway? Sadly it appears so, deceived because it is true, we are to be concerned with her only for the duration of her marriage to Hemingway, despite having come to know her sufficiently to want to know more. She has become a victim of the modern cult of the celebrity, famous only for being linked with someone famous.

I think back to another wife of a famous man I reviewed recently ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte‘. Josephine starts out as a modest character named Rose Tacher whom we are introduced to many years and one marriage before she meets Napoléon Bonaparte; we are fortunate that interest in her isn’t restricted to her marriage to Bonaparte, we are already hooked into her character and have completed an entire novel before Bonaparte even enters the scene.

Despite the deception, I recommend ‘The Paris Wife’ as an alternative, behind the scenes look at the 1920’s lives of the group Gertrude Stein called ‘the lost generation’ and also at the inspiration and experiences that influenced much of Ernest Hemingway’s work penned during this era. But perhaps most of all because McLain introduces us to a woman we can relate to and empathise with, someone we can imagine as a friend or confidante, who aspires to the same things that so many women yearn for, because she allows us to imagine and feel what it must have been like to harbour such simple and honest ambitions while navigating a fresh marriage in a new city and foreign country and culture.