The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Coincidentally, while I was reading Antonia Fraser's enchanting account of her marriage to Harold Pinter, in the car I was listening to the story of another marriage to a famous writer. The Paris Wife is Paula McLain's fictional treatment of Hemingway's first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Like McLain, I'd been intrigued by a line in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, his account of Paris in the 1920s. I read it back in college, and the line has stayed with me all these years: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” So I set aside my objections to fictional treatments of real people and dove into this account written in Hadley's voice.

Hadley and Ernest met in 1920 and married the following year. This novel traces their courtship and marriage from Hadley's point of view, and then concentrates on the years in and around Paris as we watch her encounter with the wide world change her. Scott and Zelda, Gertrude and Alice, Sarah and Gerald flit through these pages. Ernest discovers Pamplona and begins writing the stories and novels that will bring him the fame he craves.

Much as I like Hemingway's writing, I've always found Hemingway the man disagreeable and faintly ridiculous. All that macho posturing seems rather silly and indicative of deep insecurity. Of course, all I have to base my opinions on are the accounts left by others, the reconstructions of biographers, and his own memoir. I recognise their unreliability, having been thoroughly shocked by Milan Kundera's Immortality into realising how easy it is to manipulate someone's image after his or her death.

This is the core of my dislike of novels that use real people as characters. The author's interpretation of the person's character and personality becomes reality, or at least an alternative reality, in the reader's mind. Privacy is one of the things I ponder—how new technology affects it, where our rights begin and end. My concern for the right of a person to control his/her public persona influenced me in writing my own memoir, making me careful to limit my use of other people's stories and to treat them as accurately and generously as possible.

McLain, too, from what I've been able to discover, devoted much research and imagination to presenting her characters and their emotions accurately and generously. I wish I had read the book rather than listened to it. I found the little-girl voice used for Hadley demeaning to the woman who had the strength to hold things together in difficult circumstances. But of course I don't know what Hadley's actual voice sounded like. I was outraged by some of the writing, too, especially the way Hadley accepted the blame for their marital difficulties—all her fault, according to Ernest, because she didn't turn a blind eye to his affair with her close friend. It probably did happen that way, but I found it outrageous nonetheless and was relieved when she finally stood up for herself.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the book. My research into McLain's process also turned up a biography I somehow missed when it first came out in 1992: Hadley by Gioia Diliberto. Diliberto had access to Hadley's own words via taped conversations between Hadley and Alice Sokoloff, a musician and writer who knew Hadley in the 1970s. I intend to look up this biography, which was reissued in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>