The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast: “There’s No One Thing That’s True…” Ernest Hemingway

 

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you for Paris is a moveable feast.” In the last years of his  life, he attempted to write a book about what his life was like attempting to live and love in Paris in the 1920’s. Much of his writing of the material for his book was undertaken at his homes in Key West Florida and Cuba. However, attempting to write his memoir at age 61, about his life at 21, became increasingly difficult for him. He struggled every day to attempt to recall, justify, and recount the events and dialogues of the principal characters of his narrative. Complicating his difficulties, his wife during this Paris period, Hadley Richardson, accidentally left Ernest’s most authoritative writing about their first three years in Paris on a train, and they were never retrieved. Consequently, forty years later, Hemingway had few written records to refresh his thinking about the period. In addition, his memory was severely damaged due to forty years of hard-living, hard-drinking, and psychiatric shock treatment for depression. As a result of those insurmountable roadblocks, he became more and more frustrated and ultimately gave up on the project. Near the end of his life, he instructed his fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, and his publishers, Scribner’s, not to ever release the material. Nevertheless, after his 1961 death, Mary decided to edit and publish Ernest’s material posthumously in 1962, calling it fittingly, A Moveable Feast. Thus, due to the many layers of problems getting this book written and to the reading market, its genre is very difficult to categorize. Perhaps, it lies somewhere between a work of fiction and a flawed but ambitious memoir. As a result, the truth about those lost years would and could never can be accurately restored. In one of the epigraph’s Hemingway originally intended for A Moveable Feast, he writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always a chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Fifty years later, Pam McLain, an acclaimed novelist, was intrigued by the unanswered questions of A Moveable Feast and decided to write a fictional book focusing on Ernest’s relationship with his first wife , Hadley. The product of McLain’s work, The Paris Wife (2011), opens with Ernest Hemingway’s epigraph, “There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.” Although the author did extensive research about the famous couple’s life, based on available letters, manuscripts, historical accounts, and visits to the sites where they lived, much of the dialogue between them needed to be imagined by her, who holds an MFA from the University of Michigan. In her well-written book, she uses various styles of narrative and voices, including Hemingway’s, to try to persuade readers that the characters are speaking with authority. Using the reflective voice of Hadley, forty years after the couple’s divorce, McClain makes a statement that appears to contradict Hemingway’s statement about truth:

“Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, very few, in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built.”  Pictured below, Hadley, their son Bumby, and Ernest in 1926.
Ernest Hadley and Bumby Hemingway.jpg

In a recent book club discussion, I participated in, one of the members asked why The Paris Wife couldn’t have been an autobiography instead of a novel. The main answer is that there have already been many non-fiction works about this subject. But none of the earlier works attempted to express Hadley’s voice and tell the Paris year’s story from her point of view. In Hemingway’s book, he did his best to recall the glamorous life that he and Hadley lived with literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Pasos, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach. However, in his account, Hadley was practically reduced to an observer instead of an active participant of her husband’s creative life. No mention was made of her struggle to be recognized as a person who had serious artistic ambitions and valid literary understanding. However, McLain addresses Hadley’s struggles to gain such recognition. In both books, Hemingway’s view of all those notable writers  was bitter and decidedly mean-spirited. Also, in both books, the relationship between Ernest and Hadley was sweet at the beginning but turned sour at the end. After Hadley lost Ernest’s Paris manuscripts, their relationship gradually spun out of control. The situation then became impossibly complicated after Hadley’s sister’s friend, Pauline Pfeiffer interjected herself between the couple and ultimately gained the upper hand of Ernest’s affections. Hadley and Ernest subsequent divorce, and his marriage to Pauline doomed their relationship for the rest of their lives. Mary Hemingway’s edited version of A Moveable Feast presented the issue to appear as if the second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, was the main cause of the breakup between Hadley and Ernest:

“Before these rich had come [to Paris] we had already been infiltrated by another rich using the oldest trick probably that there is. This is when an unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband. When the husband is a writer and doing difficult work on a book so that he is occupied much of the time and is not a good companion or partner to his wife for a big part of the day, the arrangement has advantages until you know how it works out. The husband has two attractive girls around when he has finished work. One is new and strange and if he has bad luck he gets to love them both. Then instead of the two of them and their child, there are three of them. First, it is stimulating and it goes that way for a while. All things wicked start with innocence. So you live day by day and enjoy what you have and don’t worry. You lie and hate it and destroys you and every day is more dangerous, but you live day by day as if in a war.” In Mary’s version, Pauline was largely responsible for the marriage breakup, implying that Ernest had little responsibility. Anyone who has ever been involved in a divorce knows that this can almost never be true. Today, some scholars still question whether these were Ernest’s original words or Mary’s.

A newer edition of A Moveable Feast, edited and published in 2009 by Ernest’s grandson, Sean Hemingway, restores Hemingway’s writing, based on his original manuscripts. These convey a less derogatory emphasis on Sean’s mother, Pauline. In the last chapter of the Restored version, entitled  “There is Never Any End to Paris,” Sean omits the wording, included by Mary, which stated that Pauline “unrelentingly set out to marry the husband.” Although his version is perhaps closer to the original author’s words than Mary’s, it still might be considered suspect because the grandsonson may have wanted to protect his grandmother’s reputation in the same way that Mary was trying to protect her late husband’s. Ultimately, no one knows which account of the truth Ernest might have published if he had ever decided to release the book himself. In the Epilogue of The Paris Wife, McLain suggested that there was a 1960’s phone conversation between Ernest and Hadley, where she asked if you “Can love somebody too much?” McLain wrote, “He was quiet for a moment and I could hear the static coming through the line, a low crackle that seemed to stand for every sharp thing that had come between us. No, he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. That’s not it at all. I ruined it.” Although readers will never have any way of knowing whether this conversation actually took place, the sentiment of it seems to ring true. Shortly after this conversation, Ernest Hemingway took his father’s gun and committed suicide. The burdens of a life of disappointments and his inability to reconcile what had been true in his life must have been too difficult for him to bear.

Both versions of A Moveable Feast document that Ernest believed that divorcing Hadley was the biggest mistake of his life. He wrote, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” However, McClain’s, Paris Wife, allows readers to believe that no one was responsible for what happened. According to Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker, Hadley had the highest regard for her former husband until the end of her life, and that she never stopped loving him. Somehow, despite all that she experienced, she was not bitter and felt that all of her wonderful and most difficult experiences with him helped her grow. Her conclusions re-affirmed what Ernest Hemingway had said: “There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.” Perhaps, he might have also later added, “It’s true, at least as much as anyone can re-imagine it.” Hemingway concluded both versions of A Moveable Feast with perhaps, his truest sentiments: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who lived in it differs from that of any other.”

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January  2017.

 

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January  2017.

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