Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Paris Wife

When I studied in Paris during the summer of 2004, I read Ernest Hemingway's beautiful memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s as an expatriate. One line from A Moveable Feast that I will always remember is from the very last page:

"I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

I'm not sure if I've ever read a sadder sentence. The ending of love is always sad, but what is more sad is his yearning tone... as if he really wished that he had always loved only Hadley. So why didn't he?

Some books stick with you after you finish them so that it almost seems disrespectful to begin another when the words and the voices from the last one are still living in your head and your heart.* AMF was like that for me, as was The Paris Wife.

Going into it, knowing what I did about ole Ernest, my loyalties were with Hadley, the wronged-wife-to-be. Hemingway was, admittedly, and in his own words, a "bastard" and I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. But in the reading of it, he did earn some sympathy from me. I don't think it spoils anything to reveal that Hem had an affair-he notoriously bounced from woman to woman-there were three subsequent Mrs. Hemingways after Hadley, after all.

This book made me physically nauseous. The writing was beautiful, the story was interesting, it was intriguing to see the lives of famous people come alive on the pages (Gertrude Stein and her salon, those wacky Fitzgeralds...), but what was agonizing to me was waiting for the affair. I knew it was gonna happen, Hadley knew it was gonna happen, probably Ernest did too. The question was simply when? and with whom?

The only reason I felt some morsel of sympathy for Ernest is because I think he realized the mistake he made in leaving Hadley and paid for it. He kept up correspondence with her for the rest of his life; at one point he wrote to her that the more women he met in his life, the more he admired her. And perhaps it is telling that AMF was one of the last books he worked on before he committed suicide: at the end of his life was he looking back at his ruined love and felt regret? But maybe I'm romanticizing a bastard. Perhaps McLain said it best through Hadley's fictional voice: "... I knew he was still lost. He was such an enigma, really--fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn't one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true."

McLain beautifully captured Hadley's voice, the era, the place, and the spirit of Ernest. Hadley and Ernest have been in my head and heart all week.

Grade: A

Some of my favorite quotations from its pages:

"He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy."

"We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it, after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and rum; we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn't ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again."

* I am paraphrasing this idea from a line in The Thirteenth Tale. Sometimes you read something that is exactly what you've always thought, but never found the right words to describe.