Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Paris Wife

Paula McLain

It must be difficult to be married to an artist. First, there is the screwed up, tortured mind to deal with – no artist worth his or her salt is normal, we all know. Then there is the bohemian lifestyle that seems to be de rigueur. And topping it all is the gargantuan ego warring with crushing self-doubt, both of which need such sensitive handling. Why would anyone subject oneself to a life of such complexity?

Hadley Richardson is a normal girl living her youth in early 20th century America. She is living with her sister and her husband after losing a father to suicide, another sister to an accident and a mother to illness. Hadley is waiting for her life to bloom, waiting for adventure, waiting for the dance to start. She visits some friends in big city Chicago one weekend and meets the man who will change her life – a twenty year old Ernest Hemingway, tall, handsome, brimming with ambition, charming beyond resistance. “..he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness.” Ernest and Hadley fall in love. She is nine years older than him, but she is beautiful and real and solid and human and so irrevocably in love with this beautiful, strapping boy, McLain ensures we fall in love with her too.

They marry and set off to Paris on a modest inheritance Hadley has. And then there is glorious Paris, twenties Paris, with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. It’s poverty-stricken but brilliant with the promise of brilliance emanating out of Ernest. Hadley plays the content wife, encouraging, supportive, the calm foil to a tempestuous Hemingway. There is the fishing and the bull fighting, there is skiing in the Alps and a short-lived Canadian experience. But Hadley’s contentment always has a shadow –“He was a light-footed lad on a Grecian urn chasing truth and beauty. Where did I fit in exactly?” And then, somewhere along the way, Hadley does the unthinkable. She loses all of Hemingway’s manuscripts on a train journey. All of them. Forcing a struggling artist to start over. He perhaps never truly forgives her. The loss of something there between them is compounded by the baby. Which Hadley so desperately wants and Hemingway is ambivalent about. The end begins to begin.

Paula McLain follows Ernest Hemingway’s life with Hadley pretty faithfully, like in a well-researched biography. There are enough sources. Hemingway’s memoirs of his life in Paris, letters between Hadley and Ernest, other biographies of the brilliant personages of the age. But McClain writes this as a work of fiction, from the point of view of Hadley herself, in first person. It imbues the work with a sensitivity and feeling that touches me quite inexplicably.

Hadley is the outsider in a creatively brilliant milieu. She is forced to be the appendage to sparkling genius, but we know she is worth more than that in purely human terms. And because she is more, she needs to move out. She cannot be the groupie in a world where “As long as you were making something good or interesting or sensational, you could have as many lovers as you wanted and ruin them all. What was really unacceptable were bourgeois values, wanting something small and staid and predictable, like one true love, or a child. Family life clearly could not last in bohemian Paris. Hemingway finds love again in another woman, Pauline. And in the fine tradition of Pound, tries to get Hadley to stay in the marriage in a free-love-type open marriage. But Hadley as we know is no groupie, no clinging vine. She tries hard, but opts out in the end.

What McLain manages to do so beautifully is make us feel deeply for Hadley yet never at any point make us feel revulsion for the genius artist. Hemingway is the way he is but the excuse is always the brilliance of the work and his passion for it. There is a scene Hadley describes where Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway are hard at work, re-working some scenes in Hemingway’s novel. “Behind me, the men had bowed their heads again and were back at work, talking it through meticulously because it was heart surgery and they were the surgeons, and it was as important as anything they’d ever done. Scott could be a terrible, painful drunk. Ernest could shove cruelly against everyone who’d ever helped him up and loved him well – but none of that mattered when the patient was at hand. In the end, for both of them, there was really only the body on the table and the work, the work, the work.

So Hadley is the Paris wife, the early one, the one who had Ernest before he became famous, before his three other wives, a footnote in a mammoth giant life. But she knew and Hemingway knew and the people who knew them knew she was the real thing. She had the best of him, at a time when “Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.

Hemingway finally shoots himself, the way his father killed himself, the way his brother did, the way Hadley’s father did. Hadley goes on to have a long happy second marriage. There is some justice in the world, we’d like to think. The truth, McLain would have us believe is more complex.

It is a tale simply told. But told well. I liked it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Julian Barnes

Thank God for the Booker. I would never have attempted reading Barnes if he hadn’t won the prize for The Sense of An Ending. And reading him has given me so much of pleasure in the last few days.

The Sense of An Ending is quite a gem. It is a meditation on the illusory nature of time and memory, told by Tony Webster as he reflects on a life mildly lived, or so he thinks. As he delves into the depths of his memory, he realises how memory can play tricks, and that reality is often so distant from what memory serves up. Adrian, Alex and Tony are school friends in days when “we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up.” He reflects on those early days of precocious youth when the fear was that “Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they stuff of Literature?” Adrian is the cleverer, more seriously philosophical of the three and his suicide in his early youth is both pre-destined and profoundly shocking. And as Tony gets on with living what he terms his ‘average’ and ‘careful’ life, marrying, having children, divorcing, surviving, he does not expect time to serve him surprises any more. But the nature of time and memory is such that it does serve him surprises. A past girlfriend Veronica, a weekend spent with her family, her subsequent relationship with Adrian and a letter written in anger, all come together to dish out repercussions Tony is never aware of until the very end. And the slow realisation of the consequences of the past is lovingly teased out by Barnes with exquisite fineness ending in quite a startling finish.

Barnes’ craftsmanship is beautiful. His control of the language and the pace of the narrative is so strong, you speed away through the book, while at the same time forcing yourself to periodically stop and savour the thought so pithily expressed. And there are so many of these lovely ones peppered through the book. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”; “Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first.”; “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”

I am quite in love.

And so I go along to another Barnes novel, Talking It Over. This has Stuart, Gillian and Oliver, a trio talking over their lives to an anonymous fourth person, perhaps the reader, perhaps a documenter of their lives. Other characters flit in and out but the primary ones remain with their characteristic voices. Stuart and Oliver are best friends through school, though their friendship is a strange one, given the difference in their personalities. Stuart is the sensible, slightly boring one, the one with the carefully stored up money, the ant to Oliver’s flamboyant, careless and yet very attractive grasshopper. All is fine with Stuart proving to be Oliver’s safety net while Oliver introduces some excitement into Stuart’s life. Until of course Gillian enters. Stuart and Gillian fall in love and on their wedding day, Oliver discovers his own feelings and that leads to a string of consequences that upturn their lives entirely.

Barnes uses his characteristic command over the language to bring alive the differences in personalities between Stuart and Oliver in their first person narratives. “And even people who say they don’t care how they look care how they look. Everyone does. It’s just that some people think they look their best by looking terrible,” says Oliver. And “I’ve always thought you are what you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anyone else. But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be,” says Stuart. Of course there are the pithy reflections that I have come to think of as Barnes-isms. “Life is like invading Russia. A blitz start, massed shakos, plumes dancing like a flustered henhouse; a period of svelte progress recorded in ebullient despatches as the enemy falls back; then the beginning of a long, morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face. The enemy burns Moscow and you yield to General January, whose fingernails are very icicles. Bitter retreat. Harrying Cossacks. Eventually you fall beneath a boy-gunner’s grapeshot while crossing some Polish river not even marked on your general’s map.” Exquisite. There are so many of those quotable quotes, that I have four whole pages of notations in my kindle. And then of course there is the characteristic (at least I think it is characteristic, given that I have read precisely 2 books of his) Barnes twist in the ending that tends to be quite unexpectedly startling.

And that is why my love affair with Barnes continues.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


By Haruki Murakami

1Q84 is vintage Alice-in-Wonderland Murakami. It is also a love story and a thriller. It kept me enthralled through much of its large number of pages and when it was over, there was that bit of regret that always accompanies the end of an engaging book.

Aomame and Tengo are the lonely boy and lonely girl who meet and part when they are ten years old and from then on carry a part of each other with them as they go about their not-so-ordinary lives. It takes twenty years before a shift in the time-space continuum get them to start looking for each other. It is 1984, not yet Orwellian, but Aomame goes under a freeway and comes out into a shifted world that she names 1Q84. There are two moons in this world, policemen’s uniforms are changed and they carry more sophisticated weapons. There are cults and cult leaders who hear voices from Little People and have sex with pre-pubescent girls. There are alter egos and sex through mediums (not a new concept in Murakami novels) and dreams that are as good as reality. There are stories within stories and thriller-type surveillance, tracking and killings. Aomame’s 1q84 is Tengo’s cat town and they have to find each other in this altered time and then get out of it to escape its consequences.

And through it all, there are the normal Murakami touches. Obscure European classical music, Western pop references, cats and girls with beautiful ears. And simple, straightforward language and narrative and some uncomplicated philosophy – “We come in, sit down, have a cup of tea, gaze out the window at the scenery, and when the time comes we say thank you and leave. All the furniture is fake. Even the moon hanging in the window may be made of paper.”

It is a world where the rules that normally govern it have loosened up, there is little logic and when Aomame says ‘It’s very difficult to logically explain the illogical”, she probably speaks for Murakami fans trying to explain their fascination for this strange but magical writer. But at the end, 1Q84 is a strangely moving and lyrical love story of a boy and a girl who are connected, unchanged through a strange labyrinthine world even through twenty years. “The two of them on top of the freezing slide, worldlessly holding hands. Once again they were a ten year old boy and girl. A lonely boy and a lonely girl….They had never, ever, been truly loved or truly loved someone else…The two of them didn’t know it at the time, but this was the only truly complete place in the entire world. Totally isolated, yet the one place not tainted with loneliness.” And like the lyrics of Paper Moon, a phrase Murakami keeps using, finally, his message is of the power of love – “It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be/ But it wouldn't be make-believe/If you believed in me.”