Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book 12: Paris Without End

Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife by Gioia Diliberto

Historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres for a long time but in the past year, I have been becoming rather frustrated with it. I don't know if I keep getting the wrong novels, but a few novels in particular have all felt like they were narrated by the same slightly passive female with the occasional modern idea about equality. I understand it can be tough to appease a reader - if you make your character too passive, modern readers will have a hard time relating or symphatizing (see Katherine by Anya Seton) but make the character too modern, and she won't make sense in her historical context. I think the problem might be that I've been picking up historical fiction written from the perspective of real women rather than historical fiction about fake people that happen to hang out with important historical figures (and yet, one of my favorite novels is The Memoirs of Cleopatra which is a first person narrative as told by Cleopatra so it can be done well). All of this is basically to explain that last summer I read The Paris Wife which is a historical fiction novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and while I thought the last half was intriguing, other parts left me rather cold. When I saw a non-fiction account of her story, I decided I wanted to get the reality.

I went through a Hemingway phase in high school. We read a few his short stories that I really enjoyed, and I read a few of his novels. To be honest, I'm not even sure at this point anymore if I liked them or if I was trying to better myself by reading the classics and just kept pushing myself through. However, I think I was a bit bored with For Whom the Bells Tolls, liked A Farewell to Arms more (but I think I was ready for it to end) and actually really, really liked The Sun Also Rises. I didn't see the point of To Have and Have Not at all, didn't know what he was trying to say, and other than a chapter of A Moveable Feast which I couldn't get into, I haven't read anything else by Hemingway since. Basically, I'm not sure why I would be interested in reading about Hemingway or his wives because he isn't one of my favorite authors except that his name does hold such prominence in literature even now.

Overall, I would say The Paris Wife got the story right. Diliberto had access to tape recorded interviews with Hadley and the many letters she wrote to Hemingway. Diliberto argues that Hemingway wrote his best creative works while with Hadley, and that she influenced him to develop the simple style he became so famous for. She uses many of Hadley's letters and remarks to support this idea, and refers to ideas/concepts that Hadley wrote that later echo in Hemingway's novels (of course I was feeling contradictory, so I couldn't help but wonder if maybe Hadley was quoting Hemingway to himself in those letters since we don't know what conversations they had and Diliberto even said that Hadley burned many of Hemingway's letters to her after their divorce). While I think it is an interesting and valid argument, I didn't really find myself that interested in Hemingway or Hadley. Some of the backstory is definitely of interest, but Hemingway was also narcissistic and egotistical. In fact, I was more interested in Hadley's life prior to her relationship with Ernest Hemingway.  Her mother was a leading feminist in St. Louis but Hadley had very different views from her.  Oddly enough, while her mother was a feminist, she also treated Hadley like an invalid so there are definitely some conflicting ideas regarding gender going on in that household.  However, once the book started focusing on Hadley and Ernest as a couple, it became less interesting.  Their love letters to each other are too mushy for my tastes. Diliberto mentions that many of Hemingways' lovers in his stories and novels express a desire to be the same person, two sides of the same coin, sometimes cutting or growing their hair out to be more similar. Personally, if I met a couple like that, I would be incredibly annoyed. So while perhaps this was supposed to show how close they were, instead it made me dislike the two - also, way too many nicknames. That may have been a '20s thing though.

It is only after Hemingway has his affair, and Diliberto shows the messiness of the affair and the divorce that the book became more interesting to me (which is actually the same time frame during which The Paris Wife picked up for me). As far as Diliberto's argument regarding Hemingway as an author, I am not familiar enough with Hemingway's body of work to say whether it was valid or not though The Sun Also Rises and his short stories are the pieces that impressed me the most so that falls right in line with her idea. Given that Hemingway's last work was A Moveable Feast, I also think it is a valid argument that Hemingway ended up idealizing his memory of Hadley and their relationship. Overall, this probably would be a good book for someone that is a Hemingway fan, but I don't fit in that category and didn't really enjoy reading about their various fishing and hiking trips.  I was also amazed by many times Hadley and Ernest would appear to just leave their son for a month or two and go on vacation - and they were considered the family oriented and stable ones among the expatriates in Paris.

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