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.