The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

“I Met Ernest Hemingway Once”

hemingwayJack’s weekly guest blog

When you live in a bookstore you are continually passing by loads and loads of book spines with titles, and every so often one that evokes a memory from a far off time. Just the other day I noticed a Hemingway and was transported back – – –

One of my close friends back in Scotland (sadly now deceased) was John Watt, a fine and knowledgeable singer of traditional Scots songs and writer of many fine songs–so fine, in fact, that they were repeatedly mistaken for traditional numbers.

In the 1980s John got a grant to work with some retired Fife coalminers who had gone off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, recording their experiences and memories of the time. One of them was a colorful local character named Hugh Sloan; Hugh tended to mumble, so John almost missed it one day when he said, “…and I met Ernest Hemingway.” John knew, of course, that Hemingway had been a war correspondent in Spain at that time, so he asked Hugh to back up and give him more details.

Here is Hugh Sloan’s story as recounted by John Watt to me (with some translation from Scots to English where necessary) –

I was up in Burgos in the north, with the international brigade fighting for the Republicans against Franco’s fascists. We came under heavy attack and the order was given “tae get oot the wummin and bairns” (evacuate the women and children). I was sent to the square “tae get them oan the lorries” (assist them onto the trucks). When I got there the first lorry was loading and I saw a young guy sitting on the tailgate.

“So a said tae him – ‘get aff.’ An’ tha’ was Hemingway.”

Realizing that, from Hugh’s point of view, the story was over, John then asked if Hugh had had any further conversation with Hemingway.

“Oh aye” (why, yes) – I said “Ah’ve telt ye wance – get aff the f***in’ lorry” (I’ve already asked you once – please descend from the f***ing truck).

Again, a pause. John asked, “What happened?”

“He wudnae get aff.”

John: (sighing) So you left him there?

Oh aye, nae – Ah had this revolver in a holster at ma hip, so ah undid the clasp, took oot the gun, held it against his heid and said “see you – if ye dinna get aff this f***in’ lorry ah’ll blaw yir f***in’ brains oot!” (translation probably no longer necessary).

John: So, did he get off?

Oh aye – he got aff.

Just in case, John asked Hugh if he’d had any other words with Hemingway, but apparently that was all of it. So now you know.