‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger: a critique, Part I

In my recent post on G. Murnane’s Inland I mentioned that I’d gone on to read Salinger as an antidote to obscure modernist plotless fiction.  This is what I read…

Salinger in 1950, photo by Lotte Jacobi

Salinger in 1950, photo by Lotte Jacobi

The short story ‘Franny’ and novella ‘Zooey’ by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) appeared in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957 respectively, and were published together in book form in 1961.  The eponymous siblings, both in their twenties, are the youngest of the precocious Glass family, whose members were the subject of many of Salinger’s stories.  The Penguin paperback edition first appeared in the UK in 1964; the original American edition was first published here in 1994, and reissued by Penguin in 2010, and it is this most recent paperback edition which I refer to in this post.

Franny is the eponymous protagonist of the 30-page short story.  She’s a twenty-year-old New Yorker student of English who meets her boyfriend,  Lane Coutell – another student, but as pompous as Franny is clever.   He affects an air of lofty insouciance, pretending to have taken little notice of her gushing love-letter he’d been reading when her train pulled in.  As they drive away in a cab she realises she doesn’t feel any real affection for him.

He takes her to a fashionable restaurant famed for its French cuisine; there he smugly indulges an ‘almost palpable sense of well-being’ at finding himself ‘in the right place with an unimpeachably right-looking girl – a girl who was not only extraordinarily pretty, but, so much the better, not too categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt’.  Salinger here slips partly into the idiom of the priggish, privileged young bore, in the modernist narrative style, with its blend of omniscient narrative voice and interior monologue.

When he brags about his intellectual precocity, Franny accuses him of talking ‘like a section man’ – usually a graduate student whose conceit is matched only by his capacity for ‘ruining things for people’.  She sees Lane is irritated, but can’t stop speaking her mind.  She apologises for what he calls this ‘bug’ she’s suffering from, and says she just can’t snap out of her ‘destructive’ mood.

He eats voraciously, smoking prodigious numbers of cigarettes, but Franny doesn’t touch her sandwich and sips her glass of milk.  Unimpressed by his boasting about an essay he’s written,  she becomes increasingly distressed with what she considers his phoniness and that of everyone else associated with academic life (this is a theme familiar from Salinger’s hugely successful first novel, published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye).  She’s even contemplating dropping out of her university English course: ‘It’s all the most incredible farce’, she says.  ‘Brilliant’, Lane responds with chilling sarcasm; ‘That’s really brilliant.’

Later she lets slip that she’s also dropped out of the Theatre Department and given up performing in dramatic productions.  Lane is incredulous.  ‘All those egos running around feeling terribly charitable and warm’, she explains.  Salinger’s dialogue, with the italicised, emphasised syllables, catches the tones of the speakers with precision and wit: Lane’s inanity and pretensions are acerbically revealed through his modishly academic jargon mixed with swaggering slang and swearing, while Franny’s exasperation is pitch perfect .  Despite its serious moral and spiritual themes, this story is extremely funny.  Salinger himself had become an adherent of Ramakrishna’s Advaita Vedanta Hinduism in the early 1950s, and both ‘Franny’ and ‘Zooey’ reflect this spirituality; he later flirted with numerous other mystical or alternative sects and belief systems.

The argument escalates as Franny fails to make Lane understand the nature of her ennui and dissatisfaction with the insincerity and mediocrity she sees in academic and literary types.  ‘I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect’, she says.  Our narrator slyly refrains from telling us how the increasingly despondent young man responds to this.

Feeling unwell, she visits the ladies’ room and cries bitterly.  Lane is now thoroughly annoyed at the ‘goddam peculiar start’ to a day he’d anticipated as turning out more gratifyingly.  His veneer of charm disappears, and he’s revealed in all his unattractive nastiness and vacuity.  When she returns she complains that everyone in their social circle is ‘just so tiny and meaningless and – sad-making…I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere,  do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting.  It’s disgusting – it is, it is.

He questions her about the book she’s carrying.  The Way of a Pilgrim, she tells him, is

Christ Pantocrator, Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13C (Wikimedia Commons)

Christ Pantocrator, Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13C (Wikimedia Commons)

the story of a Russian peasant who seeks enlightenment on the significance of Paul’s words in Thessalonians about praying ‘without ceasing’.  He wanders throughout the land with a knapsack containing just bread and salt[1].  A mystic  ‘starets’, a kind of guru-monk, teaches him the power of uttering  ‘the Jesus Prayer’ without ceasing, a heartfelt prayer that has to be internalised for its efficacy to be experienced: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’.  In the manner of a Zen koan or the eremitic-ascetic tradition of hesychasm (stillness, quietude), it becomes like a heartbeat, and you get to ‘see God’, she believes.  Lane is cynical about such ‘mumbo-jumbo’, and scoffs that it could result in ‘heart trouble’.  Franny is evidently hurt by his attitude, seeing the effect of repeating the names of God as similar to that of the mantras of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.

[1] First published in Kazan in 1884 but probably written several decades earlier; the Russian title translates fully as ‘Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father’.

Lane is more interested in going to a party and ‘Yale game’, but when Franny faints, probably because she’s starving herself, he’s initially attentive, but spoils the effect by hinting at a sexual assignation later.  We’re left in the closing lines with her alone:

…quite still, looking at the ceiling.  Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.

The story shows Franny rejecting the competitive egotism of the superficial material world in favour of a more mystical, religious experience (she cites The Cloud of Unknowing in positive terms) – she’s on the brink of starting an inner journey in quest of enlightenment herself, like the Pilgrim.  She wants to stop competing: ‘I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.’  She craves the kind of annihilation of ego that mystics and anchorites seek, although she never quite articulates this fully. Lane is portrayed as typifying the crassness of secular self-interest which repels her.

The cover of the Penguin edition under discussion, from the Penguin website

The cover, from the Penguin website

Salinger is famous for his reclusiveness – he lived in near-isolation in Cornish, New Hampshire for almost fifty years, alienated from the world, avoiding interviews, litigiously preventing biographical and other works about him.  Salinger, an unconventional ‘biography’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno, was published this year to accompany a documentary film about him.  It adopts the collage approach advocated in Shields’s 2010 book Reality Hunger,  with its scattering of unacknowledged quotations profusely through the text.   The authors attempt to pierce the many myths about him, asserting for example that his tetchy seclusion was a consequence of PTSD brought on by his wartime experiences; they dwell upon his predilection for very young or much younger women, linking it with his central themes of innocence and nostalgia.  Most reviewers (like this one in the New York Times) have found some of the authors’ dramatic claims unconvincing.  Shields and Salerno also assert that up to ten previously unpublished works of Salinger’s are planned for release within the next few years.

In the second part of this post I shall turn my attention to  ‘Zooey’ and the negative critical reception which greeted the two stories, and how it’s now possible to see Franny and Zooey as the work of a master – albeit one whose character seems now to have had a decidedly unsavoury side.

Gerald Murnane, ‘Inland’: interior wanderings


Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Dalkey Archive Press reissued Gerald Murnane’s novel Inland in 2012.  It was first published in 1988.  The edition I just finished reading is the Faber paperback published in 1990.

Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne in 1939, and has rarely left his home state in Australia.  He briefly trained for the Catholic priesthood, and idiosyncratic, Irish-tainted Australian Catholicism – its doctrine, rituals, calendar and trappings – features centrally in this novel.   Although he relinquished his faith,  acts of penance for and feelings of guilt about sexuality are a central theme in his fiction.  His other preoccupations, he’s said, are topographical: ‘landscapes and geography, looking at things from a distance, desiring objects of love from far off’.

I didn’t initially find it a particularly gripping read.  Interesting, occasionally deeply moving and beautiful, but it’s very slow-burning.  Nothing much happens; it’s another of the metafictional, plotless, loosely structured novels that I seem to gravitate towards at the moment.  (I had to read Salinger straight after finishing Inland for a fix of more traditional narrative fiction.)

There’s a telling, enigmatic line of Paul Eluard’s in the novel: ‘There is another world but it is in this one’.  Timorous about travelling in the geographical, outer, ‘real’ world, Murnane turns inwards, to the existential hinterland of a narrator who is never named (‘I have kept my own name well away from these pages’, he says), and his thoughts, feelings and experiences, though meticulously recorded, are not, he insists, autobiographical.  Nevertheless, what he produced in this novel is closer to fictionalised autobiographical essay than to the genre of novel.  This is an existential mapping of the emotional and artistic associations that spring to the mind of his narrator when he contemplates images recollected in tranquillity.

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

The first section of the novel consists of 44 pages narrated by a Hungarian landowner, writing from his manor-house in a village he prefers not to name, ‘near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County’ on the grasslands of ‘the great Alfold’.  He says he’s writing in ‘heavy-hearted Magyar’ (this section sometimes reads like a parody of Hungarian authors like Marai), and the ‘heaviness’ he feels pressing on him comes from ‘all the words I have still not written.  And the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write’.  This patterned repetition of key phrases and clauses with its almost incantatory rhythms is his modus operandi throughout the novel.  It often soars beautifully, but the looping reflexivity takes some getting used to:

I will try for your sake, reader, to distinguish between what I see and what I remember and what I dream of myself seeing or remembering.

He explains that he writes for his editor, a former lover possibly, who was born between the rivers Sio and Sarviz in the plains of Transdanubia, called the Puszta in Hungarian. She has gone to Tripp County, South Dakota, on the Great Plain of America, to a town called Ideal, ‘a little east of Dog Ear Creek’ (if these names are real they’re wonderfully evoked) and home of the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies.  Her name, he says, is Anne Kristaly, and she is married to Gunnar T. Gunnarsen.  They are scientists at this Institute; she is the director of the Bureau for the Exchange of Data on Grasslands and Prairies.

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo). Wikimedia Commons

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo). Wikimedia Commons

She has ambitions to become editor of its journal, appropriately called ‘Hinterland’.  He goes on to say, in typically gnomic deadpan prose, that he has never met this man OR his wife, ‘my editor and translator’.  He dreams of her in this institute with a name that echoes that of one of Murnane’s main influences, another writer of metafictions, Italo Calvino.  He thinks of writing pages about his own grasslands for her, but imagines her jealous husband intercepting his parcel of papers and telling her he’s dead.  This would appear to be an image of what Murnane is doing while writing Inland: pages that will be read by readers maybe during Murnane’s life but also after his death:

The man is the only person inside the circle of the horizon.  He stares across the veldt or the steppes or the pampas and prepares to think of himself as quite alone.  But he cannot think of himself and the grass around his knees and the clouds over his head and nothing more.  He thinks of himself talking or writing to a young woman…He thinks of himself telling the young woman that he thinks of her telling him she thinks of a man such as himself whenever she sits at her desk and thinks of the grasslands of the world.

When the narrator says he’s died and become a ghost, the novel’s central theme is revealed.

Abruptly on page 45 a new narrator takes over.  This one also lives between two rivers: the Hopkins and Russells Creek, but he relates memories (or are these dreams, too?) of himself aged twelve living in Bendigo and other places in poor suburbs of Melbourne.

I am not sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you.  I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me.  You allowed me to believe for a long time that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor.  Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend.  Now you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.

Dream, memory, trust.

Trust me or not, reader (he goes on), but whatever I write about myself having done, I will always write about places…I will match landscape with landscape.

He sees himself standing in his grandmother’s white stone house, where he used to spend his childhood summers.  There aged twelve he learned that:

no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things.  I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be.

This becomes a refrain through the rest of the novel: ‘Each place is more than one place’…’It becomes harder and harder to write about things dreamed of by the young man I had dreamed of becoming’…’You may well suspect me of having changed the names of streams only to confuse you…But if I do not write what I am about to write, reader, these pages will be endless’.

The long second part of the novel deals with the narrator’s love for a ‘girl from Bendigo Street’.  He calls her his girlfriend.  It’s a poignant love-letter to her; it’s a reflection on the lost opportunity (in this sense it puts me in mind of Le Grand Meaulnes) and what J.M. Coetzee perceptively calls an elusive act of atonement.  This part of the novel is more ambitious and engaging than the first, as it loops, repeats and teases.  As he dreams and remembers his childhood days between the ‘Moonee Ponds and the Merri’, cycles of the Catholic calendar, naive tinkering with religious terminology (he merges ‘Paraclete’ with ‘parakeet’ in his mind), verses from the bible and the image of the fig tree turning green recur like hallucinations.  ‘Each person is more than one person’.

When the words I quoted earlier from Eluard appear on page101, they spark off another incantation:

The other world, in other words, is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.  If you or I, reader, happen to glimpse part of that world drifting past, as it were, it is because we have seen or dreamed of ourselves seeing for a moment as a narrator or a character in a book sees or dreams of seeing.

I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in modern, non-traditional fiction.  It’s

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

difficult not to find the enigmatic passages such as those I’ve quoted here mysteriously compelling.  Like the novels of Murnane’s heroes – Proust, Calvino, Emily Bronte, Hardy – Murnane deals with the concepts of loss, memory and resurrection.  As I finish this piece I’m inclined to suggest that it needs reading more than once.  It lingers in my memory like a fugue, and I feel that my initial muted response was perhaps a consequence of not tuning in to the strange music of Inland first time round.  Near the novel’s end the narrator tells of his first hearing of a piece of classical music:

Near the end of that music I heard a pause.  The solemn themes of the music paused for a moment.  Just before the clouds of music had drifted overall the sky and just before the four winds whistled and the last struggle began, I heard the pause of the summer that seemed nigh.

These ‘solemn themes’, he says, are not, ‘by now’, themes but ‘men and women, and when they pause for the last time they look over their shoulders.’  He returns to the frequently invoked biblical image of the resurrection of Christ represented as the fig tree turning from grey to green:

For an absurd moment within that moment, the listener or the reader dares to suppose that this after all is the last theme: this and not the other is the end; the green has outlasted the grey; the grey has been covered over at last by the green.

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of 'Inland' (from their website)

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of ‘Inland’ (from their website)

The novel ends in a graveyard where he ponders mutability, mortality and what might have been.  The closing words, fittingly, are taken from the ending of Wuthering Heights.  I’ve come to realise, as I re-read the final pages of Inland, that it is an extraordinary work of high seriousness and profound beauty.  One just has to learn to read it as a meditation on the relationship between reading, writing and existing in world of duality:

Today while I write on this last page, I am still thinking of the young woman.  Today, however, I am sure the young woman is still alive.  I am sure the young woman is still alive while I am dead.  Today I am dead but the young woman remains alive in order to go on reading what I would never write.

Arctic Sentences

Last week I posted a piece about the Harvard Sentences, intended for use in the synthesising of speech for IT purposes, and how they verge on poetic in their random absurdity.  Today I’d like to add another set of similar sentences, also selected for their balanced use of phonemes for speech synthesis research.  These are the Arctic Sentences.

CMU Pittsburgh Hamerschlag Hall

CMU Pittsburgh Hamerschlag Hall

These were put together by the Language Technologies Institute at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh:

These single speaker speech databases have been carefully recorded under studio conditions and consist of nearly 1150 phonetically balanced English utterances. They are distributed as free software, without restriction on commercial or non-commercial use.  The Arctic corpus consists of four primary sets of recordings (3 male, 1 female), plus several ancillary databases. Each database is distributed with automatically segmented phonetic labels. (From ‘CMU ARCTIC databases for speech synthesis’ by John Kominek and Alan W Black, 2003: online report)

So that’s clear, then.  The sample sentences for the Arctic databases were selected from texts out of copyright on the Gutenberg Project website.  Most of the source texts were from stories by Jack London (1876-1916), best known for his Klondike gold-rush novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he was also an early exponent of the dystopian-socialist novel (The Iron Heel) and science fiction; The People of the Abyss (1903) is another Orwellian work, a non-fiction account of the months he spent among the urban poor in the slums of London’s East End.

Because the Arctic databases were chosen from stories and other texts set in the far north, mostly the Yukon, they were collectively entitled ‘Arctic sentences’.  A few sentences were taken from authors named in the report’s Appendix as Curwood, Conner and Hakluyt; poems by Robert Service seem also to feature in the databases.

Jack London pre-1916

Jack London pre-1916

Unlike the Harvard Sentences, which were artificially constructed, these texts were originally composed at part of prose fiction (and some other) texts.  Despite the claim by the database compilers that they stripped out archaic or difficult expressions or vocabulary, I find them charmingly dated and clunky.  Like the Harvard Sentences, they begin to take on an almost poetic resonance when strung together or mashed up.  Here are some of my favourites:

“For the twentieth time that evening the two men shook hands.”

“There’s Fort Churchill, a rifle-shot beyond the ridge, asleep.”  (How far is a rifle-shot?)

“From that moment his friendship for Belize turns to hatred and jealousy.”

“I followed the line of the proposed railroad, looking for chances.”

“Clubs and balls and cities grew to be only memories.”

London's 'Tales of the Far North' from the Oxford World's Classics website

London’s ‘The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North’ from the Oxford World’s Classics website

“It fairly clubbed me into recognizing it.”

“He had a big chimpanzee that was a winner.”

“The Russian music player, the Count, was her obedient slave.”

“Eggshell is not good to eat.”

“Then came my boy code.”

“And wherever I ranged, the way lay along alcohol-drenched roads.”


“You yellow giant thing of the frost.”

Illustration to a Jack London story: man, dog and fire

Illustration to a Jack London story: man, dog and fire: ‘Building a Fire’

“It is dog eat dog, and you ate them up.”

“It was my reports from the north which chiefly induced people to buy.”

“This time he did not yap for mercy.”

“I was brought up the way most girls in Hawaii are brought up.”

“I saw it when she rolled.”

“I’ll be out of my head in fifteen minutes.”

“Those are my oysters, he said at last.”

“Massage under tension, was the cryptic reply.”

“Besides, had he not whipped the big owl in the forest.”

“Her achievements with cocoanuts (sic) were a revelation.”

Harvard Sentences

Poster for 'Orphée', directed by Jean Cocteau

Poster for ‘Orphée’, directed by Jean Cocteau

Harvard sentences: a collection of sample phrases that are used for standardized testing of Voice over IP, cellular, and other telephone systems. They are phonetically-balanced sentences that use specific phonemes at the same frequency they appear in English.

IEEE  (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, based in New York) ‘Recommended Practices for Speech Quality Measurement’ sets out 72 lists of 10 phrases, described as the “1965 Revised List of Phonetically Balanced Sentences (Harvard Sentences).” They are widely used in research in telecoms, speech and acoustics, where standardized and repeatable sequences of speech are needed. The Open Speech Repository provides some freely usable, prerecorded WAV files of Harvard Sentences in American and British English, in male and female voices.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

The Open Speech Repository ‘provides the industry with a freely useable and publishable source of good quality speech material for Voice over IP testing and other applications’ (OSR website: here one can play WAV audio files of these same sentences being read aloud.  Intriguingly, it’s possible to select either American or British English accents.  There are also files for Mandarin, French and Hindi sentences; Japanese and Spanish are said to be forthcoming.)

Death's car and outriders in 'Orphée'

Death’s car and outriders in ‘Orphée’

I couldn’t resist providing a selection here: they read like absurdist poems.  Did you ever see the great Cocteau film ‘Orphée’?  In this black-and-white classic, the second in the ‘Orphic trilogy’, the Orpheus legend is surreally updated to contemporary (1949/1950) Paris.  Jean Marais (the artist-poet-director’s partner), who plays the eponymous hero – a cool, successful poet –  visits the Café des Poètes, full of hip existentialist beatniks (he sees a poetry review called ‘Nudisme’, which consists entirely of blank pages – a sly dig at the surrealist avant garde; ‘No excess is absurd’).  After a brawl which results in a death he’s bundled away in a black Rolls Royce by the enigmatic Princess with two even more sinister, black leather-clad motorcycle outriders.  On the car radio is heard a string of bizarre lines of poetry – which are very like the gnomic Harvard Sentences.  They also sound like the coded messages broadcast by the wartime BBC to the French Resistance (the film is full of such resonances): ‘silence goes faster backwards.  Three times.  I repeat…’ ‘A single glass of water lights up the world’…’The bird sings with its fingers’…Orpheus is smitten with these absurd lines, and realises they surpass his own verse in quality.

Here’s the first set of Harvard Sentences:

List 1

  1. The birch canoe slid on the      smooth planks.
  2. Glue the sheet to the dark blue background.
  3. It’s easy to tell the depth      of a well.
  4. These days a chicken leg is      a rare dish.
  5. Rice is often served in      round bowls.
  6. The juice of lemons makes      fine punch.
  7. The box was thrown beside      the parked truck.
  8. The hogs were fed chopped      corn and garbage.
  9. Four hours of steady work      faced us.
  10. Large size in stockings is      hard to sell.

It would be fun to create found poems from these, and maybe mash them up a bit: ‘Glue the chicken to the parked truck’…’glueing chickens to corn and garbage is hard to sell’ …

List 2

  1. The boy was there when the      sun rose.
  2. A rod is used to catch pink      salmon.
  3. The source of the huge river      is the clear spring.
  4. Kick the ball straight and      follow through.
  5. Help the woman get back to      her feet.
  6. A pot of tea helps to pass      the evening.
  7. Smoky fires lack flame and      heat.
  8. The soft cushion broke the      man’s fall.
  9. The salt breeze came across      from the sea.
  10. The girl at the booth sold      fifty bonds.

This is nice, from List 6: The crooked maze failed to fool the mouse.

Chris Toalson's postcard project, from the Postcard Collective website

Chris Toalson’s postcard project, from the Postcard Collective website

When researching for this piece I came across a project on the Postcard Collective website; they say this about themselves:


Motivated by an intrinsic human desire to share experience, our mission is to build and maintain a network of individuals who seek to share their art with each other in the form of postcards, to open up a direct line of communication between artists, and to promote a sense of camaraderie and connectedness throughout the Collective.

In a blog entry dated Aug. 28, 2011, there’s a piece about an American called Chris Toalson; he heard about the Harvard Sentences on NPR and hit upon the idea of making woodblock postcards, each one featuring one of the sentences from List 2.  He has this to say about the source materials:

In September 1969, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a study titled IEEE Recommended Practice for Speech Quality Measurements. Due to the increasing variety of speech transmission systems being utilized at the time, communication engineers found a need for standardizing their approach to measuring speech quality. This study included a list of phonetically balanced and homogenously structured sentences to be used as control speech material. Still utilized today, they have become known as the Harvard Sentences. These postcards reinterpret one of those ten sentence lists from 1965.  Amidst a culture obsessed with tweets, text messages, and status updates, communication via postcard seems archaic at best. The sentences themselves evoke nostalgic feelings for a simpler bygone era, and at times seem propagandistic. I’m interested in merging the notion of postcard as a form of communication and the laborious process of artistic creation, while pointing to the era that these sentences present.

In an interview he goes on to say this:

Chris Toalson's postcard project again

Chris Toalson’s postcard project again

My initial thought had to do with this concern for sound quality when to me it seemed so unimportant because of how common texting had become. Maybe it was also because I was trying to think of my next postcard idea at the time, but I think I was also looking at a variety of different artists who have explored language.

Jean Marais in the title role, trying to pass into the world of death through a mirror
Jean Marais in the title role, trying to pass into the world of death through a mirror


Strange coincidence: I broke off to eat having just written that last sentence and checked my twitter feed – The New Yorker’s ‘Page-Turner’ blog has just now featured an article on ‘Orpheus through the ages’ by Kate Bernheimer, in which she has a section on Cocteau’s film (which she dates 1949).  A friend rang me just now and said ‘Orphée’ is a favourite film of his; I’ve known him for decades, but never knew this.  Spooky.

Note: unless stated otherwise all pictures are from the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Below: Jean Cocteau in 1923

Jean Cocteau in 1923


Paula McLain, ‘The Paris Wife’ – a critique

Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Virago Press, 2012, paperback; first published 2011)


Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day, 1921

Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day, 1921

The Paris Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway from the time they first met in 1920 to their separation and divorce in 1926.  Most of that time they spent in Paris, where they lived on Hadley’s small trust fund and the erratic sums Ernest was paid for his journalism.

The first 90 pages cover the period before they reached Paris, and this section is pretty heavy going.  Hadley is presented as unworldly, gauche, socially inept and lacking in confidence.  She’d had a sickly childhood in which she had some damaging experiences: accidents, the death of a sister, her father’s suicide in 1903; as a consequence her mother over-protected her and she became painfully shy.  Soon after her mother died in 1920 Hadley went to visit her old college room-mate in Chicago and there met the dashing Ernest – he was 21, she was 28, but immature.

The prose is often both stodgy and breathlessly romantic to the point of cliché; here’s how their meeting is described –

The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes …It’s October 1920 and jazz is everywhere.  I don’t know any jazz, so I’m playing Rachmaninoff.  I can feel a flush beginning in my cheeks from the hard cider my dear pal Kate Smith has stuffed down me so I’ll relax.  I’m getting there, second by second.

To paraphrase the critique of Mozart’s music in the film Amadeus, too many words.  And where else would a flush begin but in the cheeks?

Hadley and Ernest, winter 1922

Hadley and Ernest, winter 1922

In the next chapter this ham-fisted establishment of character continues:

I was only twenty-eight, and yet I’d been living like a spinster on the second floor of my older sister Fonnie’s house…Somehow I’d gotten stuck along the way…and I didn’t know how to free myself exactly.

Redundant or unnecessary adverbials and adjectives and intrusive biographical research details clog the narrative.  When we get to the whirlwind romance the register becomes more romantic and slushy.  They dance:

Ernest Hemingway was still very much a stranger to me, but 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.  His eyes sparked all over everything, all over me as he leaned back on his heel and spun me toward him.

‘Aliveness’?  Again there’s that intensifying ‘very’,  which McLain overuses.  Although she’s trying to convey the awkward frumpishness and naivety of Hadley Richardson here, (‘I was closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper’ she thinks, whatever a ‘holdout’ is, as she forlornly regards all his fashionable admirers at the party), and contrast it with Ernest’s suave confidence and dash, the effect is more embarrassing than electrifying.  His seduction of her and her grateful adoration of him comes across as borderline creepy:

‘I’ll never lie to you,’ I said.

He nodded into my hair.  ‘Let’s always tell each other the truth.  We can choose that, can’t we?’

McLain is partial to these awkward foreshadowings of the divorce and Ernest’s betrayal of Hadley with the woman she thought was her friend, Pauline Pfeiffer.  When she tells her friend Kate that she and Ernest are engaged, this is the response:

‘You’re going to regret this.  You know you will.  He’s so young and impulsive.’

‘And I’m what?  A sedate little spinster?’

‘No, just naive.  You give him too much credit.’

Hadley loses her virginity to Ernest.  Afterwards he tells her he needs her to be able to write, and he hopes they’ll grow old together:

‘I’d love to look like you,’ I said. ‘I’d love to be you.’

I’d never said anything truer.  I’d gladly have climbed out of my skin and into his that night, because I believed that was what love meant.  Hadn’t I just felt us collapsing into one another, until there was no difference between us?

It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking.  I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to.  He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him.  But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me.  And come back when he wanted to.

There’s some psychological insight here, but again there’s an awkward blend of intelligent perception and adolescent romanticism, with an extra element of self-pity.  The fact that Ernest’s character is always seen only from Hadley’s perspective results in a sense that her view of him is distorted by what subsequently happened, while her own role is rose-tinted and innocent.  As a consequence he becomes something of a priapic villain to her quivering ingénue victim.

Before this piece becomes too long let’s deal rapidly with the rest of the book.  The Paris section is much more readable, but even this is badly flawed.  There’s a constant repetition of scenes of boozing, bacchanalia laced through with Hadley’s growing estrangement from Ernest and his circle as he becomes more successful in his literary career, and less dependant on her.  One feels pity for her, but also that Hadley almost willed her own rejection.  And the self-deprecatory image McLain presents of Hadley as a sweet innocent abroad is hard to reconcile with the way she’s shown boozing with the fast set and alone with Ernest and apparently enjoying getting drunk and reckless.

The snobbish sense of superiority Ernest emanates is also shared by Hadley; he scorns the expatriates of Paris who ‘preened and talked rot and drank themselves sick.  Ernest felt disgusted by them.’  Then he and Hadley drink until they both vomit.

There are some vivid portraits of inter-war Paris – Poiret and Chanel couture, shingle-bob hairstyles, painted nails and decadence (‘but that wasn’t me’, Hadley ruefully adds) – but they never fully come to life, and retain a whiff of library research.

Paula McLain (photo from Random House website)

Paula McLain (photo from Random House website)

McLain does give a clear sense of Ernest’s devotion to developing the pared-down literary technique and style of ‘omission’ for which he became famous; she’s also good at the painful deterioration in the marital relationship brought to a head by Hadley’s losing all of Ernest’s manuscripts in a valise on a train, then on her telling him she’d fallen pregnant.  He wasn’t ready to be a parent, and could never trust her again.   I’ve written about this in my previous few posts on Hemingway.

Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and John Quinn outside Pound's Paris studio in Rue des Champs, 1923

Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and John Quinn outside Pound’s Paris studio in Rue des Champs, 1923

There are some successful scenes with the modernist innovators of Paris in the twenties: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and others; I wrote about these, too, in my recent pieces on Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  Some, however, come across as literary tourism.

Ultimately, then, I wouldn’t recommend this novel for anyone looking for insight into the characters of Hadley or Ernest Hemingway, or for a sense of what Paris in the twenties was really like; this can be found more vividly and entertainingly in Hemingway’s memoir.  The one aspect missing from A Moveable Feast is what The Paris Wife does provide: Hadley’s deep pain and bitterness at the shameful way that Ernest succumbed to Pauline’s single-minded pursuit of him.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway,Paris,1927

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, Paris,1927

Pauline had befriended her, if this account is accurate, with half a mind to steal him away from her dowdy friend.  Hadley didn’t stand a chance against this sleek otter – Pauline is more chic, sophisticated and intelligent.  She can talk to Ernest on equal terms about literature; her praise of his work (he always needed to be flattered) was more valuable to him because she had a far more literary sensibility than dear, devoted Hadley.  Pauline’s nickname for her is ‘Dulla’ – a cruelty to which Hadley at first seems unaware.

In none of these texts that I’ve examined over the past few weeks does Ernest emerge as anything other than a first-class louse.  But one capable of writing beautiful, lucid prose.

Virago edition of 'The Paris Wife' (Waterstones website)cover photo of the novel: Waterstones website; all pictures unless otherwise stated from the public domain via WikiCommons.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ critique Pt II

Part Two, continued: for pt one of this critique, click here

The ‘American wife’’s prattling, repetitive list of wants now becomes a reiterated ‘want a cat’, culminating in a foot-stamping, petulant ‘ now’.  Then the maid knocks and enters their hotel room holding ‘a big tortoiseshell cat’ against her body.  She announces, in the last line of the story, that the padrone had asked her to ‘bring this for the Signora’.

So what’s the hidden part of this iceberg of a story?  It’s been suggested that the woman’s childlike mantra of repetitions about how much she wants a ‘kitty’ to pet and care for is an indication, as I’ve suggested in the first part of this critique, that she longs to have a child, or may even be pregnant already.

Gertrude Stein with John 'Bumby' Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

Gertrude Stein with John ‘Bumby’ Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

This is certainly the way Paula McLain relates a similar scene in her novelised version of Hadley’s life with Ernest, The Paris Wife, which I reviewed here.  (Its title could be seen as derived indirectly from this story’s ‘the American wife’.  Hemingway’s favourite nickname for Hadley was ‘Cat’ or ‘Kitty’.)

Her much-repeated insistence that she wants a cat and other things can be seen then as an indirect, even symbolic representation of her longing for a baby, stated obliquely perhaps because she fears her husband’s response will be as brutish and insensitive as McLain depicts it was in the Hemingways’ real life.  Unfortunately this causes her to sound like a spoilt little girl, thereby increasing George’s heedless, selfish absorption in his own world of books.  The fact that the cat brought in by the maid sounds like a different one from the ‘little kitty’ seen earlier by the wife further reinforces the notion that this ‘girl’ is to be indulged only so far, and certainly not by a husband who is reluctant to engage with her at any but the most superficial emotional level.  He likes her looks, maybe even desires her, but he doesn’t seem to want to make any other commitment to her than a limited and sexual one.

In The Paris Wife McLain imagines a scene in which, on holiday together in Chamby, near Lake Geneva (he had initially gone to Switzerland to cover a Peace Conference for a newspaper), shortly before they left for Rapallo, Hemingway is incensed to discover that Hadley had forgotten to bring her prophylactic diaphragm.

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925. JFK Library

He tracks her monthly fertility cycle meticulously in a notebook so they ‘could have unprotected intercourse as often as possible.’  He knew better than Hadley which days were ‘safe’, and we are clearly meant to infer that he takes these steps for the benefit of his own sexual gratification and terror of Hadley’s becoming pregnant.  They have a sex code which involves his asking if she has made ‘the necessary arrangements’ to which Hadley is expected to reply, “Yes, sir” as if she were ‘his secretary’.  When on this occasion in Chamby she confesses she’s left the diaphragm in Paris his reaction is fierce: ‘Your timing stinks’, he spits, red-faced and ‘very angry’.  He demands to know what else she’s been keeping from him.  When she admits that she would like a baby he’s furious.  He says they’d ‘agreed’ to wait until his writing career had taken off: ‘Do you really want to ruin it for me?’   Bitterly she points out that at thirty-one she ‘doesn’t have all the time in the world’.  Neither does he, is his selfish, challenging riposte.  The time isn’t right, he tells his ‘little cat’.

When they reach Rapallo, McLain tells us, Hadley was charmed by the town; ‘Ernest disliked it on sight.’  But it’s also his writer’s block that’s causing his irascible behaviour.  His frustration is perhaps reflected in George’s gruff manner with his wife.  In The Paris Wife there’s a scene that’s surely based on ‘Cat in the Rain’.  Hadley stands gazing out of the hotel window looking at the rain, worrying about the growing tension in the marriage; she ponders the moral laxity in their artistic set in Paris and talks about it with Ernest, who lies reading on his bed, barely looking up at her.  He speaks airily about marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity (their friend Pound openly had an affair and made no attempt to conceal it from his wife or anyone else), and claims not to think it ‘means anything’.

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

She’s shocked, and wonders if it means something when ‘everyone finally gets smashed to bits’ – prophetic words, given that their marriage lasted only three more years, when her friend Pauline Pfeiffer stole him away from her and became the second Mrs Hemingway.

Soon afterwards she tells him she’s pregnant.  His reaction is once again angry – he feels trapped, tricked and creatively thwarted.  Their quarrel simmers for days, until she asks him if he thinks she’s ‘done this on purpose’.  ‘What, lost the manuscripts?’ he replies.  She feels like he’s slapped her.  Later she’s mortified to realise he’s ‘tangling up the lost manuscripts with the coming baby in his mind’, and partly believes she’s ‘sabotaged’ his work doubly: first when she lost the valise containing all his manuscripts on the train en route to Switzerland, then by falling pregnant:

Broken trust could rarely be repaired, I knew, particularly for Ernest.  Once you were tarnished for him, he could never see you any other way.

He had fallen in love with Hadley because she was so unworldly, even a little dull – but she provided the undivided attention and loyal, adoring support he needed.  From this point their marriage is doomed.  Maybe she lost the manuscripts and became pregnant out of more than carelessness, he suspects; maybe she wanted to sabotage his literary career out of jealousy, a desire to keep him all to herself.

‘Cat in the Rain’ can be seen, perhaps, as his half-conscious recognition of a relationship that was foundering.  It’s interesting to consider how well he realised the portrayal of George was so unflattering to him, if George is meant to be some kind of representation of himself.  Even though he portrays neither character as capable of showing much empathy to the other, it’s hard to believe that he would knowingly place the anguish of ‘the American wife’ centre stage and make George appear so totally self-centred.  Unless, of course, a part of him was feeling guilty already about his ungenerous treatment of the woman who’d given up pretty much all she knew back home to tend to his needs and immense ego as his ‘Paris wife’. It’s also possible, I suppose, that his portrayal of the ‘American wife’ in this story was intended to show her as annoyingly whimsical, immature and egotistical, and that George’s breezy insularity was totally understandable.  If that was his intention it surely doesn’t entirely succeed.

For a link to my review of The Paris Wife click HERE

Note: all photographs are from WikiCommons and are in the public domain.

Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ – a critique

Ernest Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’ was first published in New York in 1925 in the collection In Our Time.  Hemingway dedicated the book to his wife Hadley.  It was inspired by a visit he made with his wife to Rapallo in 1923, where their friends Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy rented a villa.  The Hemingways were in the second year of their marriage and of being based in Paris.

The story begins:  ‘They were the only two Americans stopping at the hotel.’  They don’t know any of the other guests; the narrative emphasises, that is, their isolation – they have only each other.  Their hotel room faces a scene described with Hemingway’s typically unadorned style; objects are singled out with minimal comment : ‘There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.’  The sentences are mostly simple in structure, usually just one or two phrases or clauses, tacked together with the conjunction ‘and’.   Adjectives are rare, and when used are usually monosyllabic and plain, even banal: ‘big’, ‘green’,‘bright’.   The atmosphere created is therefore neutral, even uninviting: ‘Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.’


Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo (photo: D. Papalini via WikiC)

Rapallo is never named, but it’s clearly an Italian seaside resort very like it, for ‘Italians came from a long way off to look at the war monument’, which was ‘made of bronze and glistened in the rain.’  This is the only noun so far that is out of the ordinary, and even this ‘monument’ is presented unemphatically.  Its significance seems to be to highlight the seriousness with which the Italians took their recent history, and to show how committed they were to honouring the memory of those who’d died in World War I (they don’t just come to ‘look at’ the monument – they ‘look up at it).  This commitment contrasts with the presentation of the two self-obsessed American characters, who now appear.

The style in these opening three paragraphs reflects what Hemingway had been developing in his work, further encouraged by his mentors in Paris for the past two years – Pound and Gertrude Stein in particular: pare everything down to its essence in prose with rhythmic syntactic patterns and frequent repetition.  This involved striving for what he described in his memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast (which I reviewed here recently): ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ and ‘not describe’.  He elaborated this ‘theory’ thus:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

in paragraph three, then, the word ‘rain’ (also used in the story’s title) or ‘raining’ appears five times, and it recurs five more times in the rest of this story which contains just over 1100 words in total.  Other words from this semantic field resonate throughout the story: ‘dripping’, ‘wet’, ‘umbrella’, and so on.  Many other carefully selected words and phrases are repeated in these opening paragraphs: ‘room’, ‘sea’, ‘public garden’, ‘war monument’; several reappear later.  Hemingway is intent on foregrounding the few solid things that are significant; everything else is omitted, and there are few abstract nouns.  This is his famous ‘iceberg’ method, where what is visible and solid in the story is considerably less substantial than what lies beneath the surface.

The other most-repeated expressions indicate where the symbolic and emotional focus in the story lies:  ‘cat’ is used in the title and twelve times in the story; the childish diminutive ‘kitty’ is used by the wife seven times.

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

Photo: Cindy2 via WikiC

She is referred to anonymously as ‘the American wife’ or ‘his wife’ seven times and even more patronisingly as ‘(the American) girl’ four times, whereas George is named eight times, only being called ‘the husband’ twice; his inertia is emphasised through being repeatedly described as lying on the bed – ‘read’ or ‘reading’ appears seven times, ‘book’ twice, ‘bed’ five times.  Only the wife physically moves about, which she does frequently and restlessly; George’s most strenuous act is to put his book down briefly and to ‘shift his position in the bed’.

The story proper starts with this ‘girl’ looking out of their window at the rain; presumably she’s bored, languid and listless – they’re trapped in the room by the weather, but we sense that her sense of entrapment goes deeper.  When she spots a ‘poor kitty’ cowering under a table outside,  sheltering from the rain, George offers half-heartedly to fetch it.  The wife goes, leaving him reading on his bed.   ‘Don’t get wet’, he says, unsympathetic, ungallant.

The hotel proprietor, by  way of contrast, is kind to her as she leaves the building.  The narrator repeats variants of the verb ‘liked’ seven times in quick succession– ‘She liked the way he wanted to serve her’; his generosity of spirit contrasts with George’s brusqueness and inattentiveness.  A maid appears, kindly sent by the proprietor, with an umbrella to shelter her as she searches in the downpour for the cat, but it has gone.  When she returns inside, ‘Something felt very small and tight inside the girl’ – possibly the first verbal hint at her true physical and emotional condition.  The proprietor bows to her and she feels strangely important.  There’s something childish about Hemingway’s depiction of her – and about George.

Back in their room they talk, or the wife does, in desultory fashion.

‘I wanted it so much,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’

George was reading again.

The wife turns her attention to her reflection in the mirror, and again is shown as immature through the language of the narrative; first she suggests that she should grow her hair so as to look less like ‘a boy’ (not ‘man’) – a look of which she repeatedly says she’s ‘tired’.  George says, seemingly sincerely, that she looks ‘pretty darn nice’; here again the language is hardly adult or sophisticated.  The wife’s tirade continues petulantly: she adds that she also ‘wants’ her own table to eat at with her own silver and candles.  She’s possibly craving the stability and security of a nest for a longed-for baby, but she also states this desire for tangible, domestic objects in the absence of warmth and affection from George – a factor he seems oblivious to.  She says that she wants it to be spring, to brush her hair and a ‘kitty’ (suddenly remembered again) and ‘some new clothes’, and she sounds (to George and to the reader) irritatingly pettish and girlish, but also discontented and frustrated.  His dismissive response, however, is to snap: ‘Oh, shut up and get something to read.’  And he returns to his own reading. End of Part One of this critique. 

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Part Two of this critique is found here: it offers a closer look at how ‘Cat in the Rain’ might be interpreted, in the light of a parallel scene in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife – her novel based on Hemingway and Hadley’s life in twenties Paris, my review of which is found here.