Book Review: The Paris Wife, gender and the writing life

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I’m almost finished listening to The Paris Wife by Paula McLain as an audio book.  One more round trip drive to Louisville should do it.  It’s a lovely novel, and well worth listening to.  I would say it’s probably a book I would have actually read, as well.  I can’t say this for all the audio books I listen to; some of them are not quite worth the commitment of the printed page.  But the book has gotten me thinking about gender and the writing life.

The Paris Wife is told from the first person perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson (isn’t Hadley a wonderful name for a woman?).  In the novel, we get to see in a rather intimate way what it might be like to love, marry and have children with one of America’s greatest writers.  Suffice to say, it’s no picnic.  Certainly, in McLain’s version of reality, Hadley very much loved Ernest, and he loved her.  I haven’t even gotten to the bits where I think their lives start to go very badly, but already what strikes me is the selfishness of the writing life.  Or maybe of male writers?  It’s hard to tell.

Not surprisingly, a lot has been written about writing.  Not surprising because if you’re a writer, writing is something you’re going to find quite fascinating, and therefore want to write about.  I remember a few years back now reading an essay by Orhan Pamuk about the loneliness of writing.  He was arguing that for everyone who writes, there is a moment when you have to shut out everything and everyone else and leave them all behind.  You must go and inhabit a world that’s all your own, all of your own making.  He was arguing that you can write only if you are willing to tolerate this kind of isolation.

I remember at the time I read his essay, I had not been writing for years.  I thought to myself, “Well, that works out well that I don’t write anymore, because I have no interest in isolating myself.  In fact, it sounds downright self-absorbed and unhappy to live such a monastic life.”  And then later I thought, “No, Pamuk has it wrong.  You don’t have to go away and be alone to write.”  But of course, he’s right.  You do.

Virginia Woolf quite famously knew this.  Women need a room of their own.  Which is a damned liberating and radical idea if you’re Virginia Woolf, because women were given no space of their own in her day.  But also means that there is some shutting out of the world that has to take place.  And if you live in a world like mine, where the possibility of a room of one’s own is much more plausible, the problem is more about the loneliness itself.

Ernest and Hadley

My husband is always saying that there are people who absolutely have to write in order to keep from going insane or becoming addicts.  Those are the Writers.  And then there’s the rest of us who would like to write, but don’t feel compelled to do so.  According to this dichotomy, Ernest Hemingway was a Writer.  He was an unpleasant dick when he couldn’t write.  He was kind of an unpleasant dick when he could write, so maybe the writing had nothing to do with it.  More importantly, he had a wife and this allowed him to go off and do his writing.  Hadley struggles with being left alone for Ernest’s writing, but she feels it’s important to him, and so mostly so far, she supports him.

I have a lovely husband who is quite willing to support me in my decision to shut myself in the back room to write.  And unlike Hadley, I think he’s often quite happy to do so; he has his own interests to attend to.  But here’s the difference between me and Hemingway.  Or here’s what I imagine the difference is between me and Hemingway.  I feel bad about shutting that door.  I feel bad about spending time in the back room of our house typing away on a keyboard.  Even when the writing is going well and is feeling enjoyable, I feel like I have let someone down.  I don’t think Hemingway spent much time worrying about this.

Maybe my husband is correct in that there are Writers and the rest of us.  The Writers will write no matter what the circumstances.  And so the guilt I feel about shutting the door is because I am a writer and not a Writer.  But then I wonder, how many of those Writers are men?  Is that compulsion to write enabled if you’re a man in ways it might not be if you’re a woman?  Or does gender really have nothing to do with it?

Here’s the flip side of shutting the door, though, which is also apparent in The Paris Wife.  Writing can also be very much about community.  I know Hemingway’s work, but I didn’t know much about his particular influences…his circle.  If we can trust McLain’s telling, Hemingway’s writing was deeply dependent upon his relationships with people like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and the rest of the ex-pat crowd in Paris and the rest of Europe.  Figures like Pound and Stein literally helped him by reading his work and by talking about writing.  But they also helped him do things like find an apartment, and discover the bull fights in Spain, a subject which became an obsession for Hemingway.  They helped him to get his very first work published, and to find a job with a newspaper to make some money to support Hadley and their baby.  Hemingway would not have been Hemingway without this community, let alone without his almost unfailingly supportive wife, Hadley.

Ernest and Hadley

I have a friend who’s a sculptor and her work is almost always deeply collaborative.  The pieces are painstaking and they often take a village to assemble.  She recruits friends and students and people from the community to come help her cut piping or assemble twist ties.  It feels like a kind of quilting bee at moments, and I’ve always thought this was a rather unique way to do art because of its communality.  But as time goes on, I begin to believe that the image we have of the artist, working in isolation for hours in his or her studio, is a myth more than a reality.  Really, art is about the juxtaposition of the moments being alone and those equally important moments of being together.  Hemingway talking to Gertrude Stein.  A group of people assembling a sculpture together.

This vision of art makes perfect sense, because great art tells us something about ourselves as humans.  Ourselves as people.  This would be a very difficult thing to do if you truly shut yourself in a room; how would you know anything about people without interacting with them from time to time?  But how would you be able to create great art if you didn’t have some time alone to think or write or sketch?  Perhaps it is the very going back and forth which is so important.

I love Hemingway’s writing.  Every now and then I read “The Hills Like White Elephants” as a lesson in the amazing things you can do with language.  But I’m so glad not to have been married to him.  And I don’t particularly think I would have liked hanging out with him much, either.  I wouldn’t mind, as he did at one point in Paris, having my own little apartment space in which to write.  Would it be easier or harder to walk down the street to a studio, rather than shutting oneself in the back room?  I’m not sure.  But I probably wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

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