My Complicated Relationship with Hemingway
The idea of Earnest Hemingway is romantic. A sweeping, brash man holding a sweating mojito, braced against the wavering Havana heat. But the romanticized version of anyone is often treacherous, and commonly incorrect.
I read A Farewell to Arms in high school. My English class had just finished Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and it ruined me. The greatest love story of all time, my teacher called it. Bleh. Catherine was spoiled and Heathcliff was narcissistic and (spoiler alert!) I was done with it by the time the selfish twit died. (I didn't read Jane Eyre until much later, but I think Charlotte Bronte got the short end of the high school English department stick. She clearly knew the sacrifice of love better than her sister. But I digress.) After the exhausting journey of Wuthering Heights, I was looking for something more solid, something to restore my faith in the love story. Along came Hemingway and his soldier and nurse. And they were strong, smart characters. He told her every thought in his head and she resisted his charms and the anguish of love began. But the writing is what caught me. It was hard and honest and unapologetic.
And I was a little swept up in it. So much so that, before I had finished the story, I looked into the author. I had to know who this man was - what he thought and how he operated. And then I discovered his tendency for womanizing, his demanding nature, his crass egoism. It disappointed me that someone whose writing I had grown to admire had been such an ass. (I was young, I looked at love and life in very black and white terms ... and I judged him.) The more I read about Hemingway, the less I liked him, and the character of Frederic in the novel suddenly warped into a tainted version of what he once had been to me. His forthrightness, his eagerness to have the nurse, his desire, morphed into something selfish and hungry, less romantic, more ass-like. By the end, I was bitter. Hell hath no fury and all that. I now have a strict policy - The Hemingway Rule. I don't read about the life of an author until I've finished a book. I don't want reality to taint the fiction.
But life happens in layers, doesn't it? And the next layer, when laid over the first like a filter, changes the light in which I view Hemingway. A few years ago, I was sifting through the shelves of an old bookstore along Pirate Alley in New Orleans and came across The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. Housed in the former home of William Faulkner, Faulkner House Books was the perfect spot to find a book about Hemingway. Though the two writers couldn't have been more different in style, both were American contemporaries influenced by Sherwood Anderson. In fact, Anderson encouraged his publishers to read the works of both Hemingway and Faulkner, which directly tied to their fate. Again, I digress.
I didn't buy the book. I was looking for a work by Faulkner, of which - infuriatingly - they had very little inventory. (It's called Faulkner House Books, people, house some Faulkner inventory!) Regardless, one cannot go into Faulkner's house and purchase a work about Hemingway. Seems sacrilegious. Years later, the book came to me again, from the bottom of a dusty pile at a garage sale. And I fell in love. With Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife. And with the world in which they lived. And I discovered something else about the man I'd loved and hated, in turn, in the past: he's a lot like me. The way he enters into his work and needs to be pulled out of it at the end of the day, his moodiness, his judgement of others *ahem*, the way he observes people and draws from their madness. The way he would reach the end of a story and become reluctant to finish it, holding onto something he was afraid to let go of. It's infuriating to realize someone you once hated is just another version of you. And it makes sense. After all, don't we often judge people based on the pieces of ourselves we see in them? The Paris Wife is fantastic. The prose is poetic and lovely and simple. And Hadley is a calm, insightful, patient human being - the only kind that could put up with a writer. I highly recommend it, even if you are in a tragic love-hate relationship with Hemingway.
Paula McLain wrote an article recently (inspiring these thoughts today), outlining the life of another Hemingway wife - his third - war corespondent and novelist Martha Gellhorn. My base reaction to the article was surprising. McLain seems to marginalize Hemingway, as the stance she takes is one of support of the wife who left him for her career. And I found myself bracing against that opinion, as if I were loyal to a man I'd never actually met. Strange, because, clearly, I agree with the stance against which I reacted. One cannot read about a man asking a woman to choose his bed over her career and not be peeved about it.
I'm telling you, it's complicated.
The article is to promote the release of the book Love and Ruin, outlining the life of another piece of Hemingway history. And I'm afraid this strange relationship is going to have to continue, as now, I find I need to read this one too.