The Paris Wife

As I will be visiting Paris for the first time this year, I’m getting more and more excited by reading stories set there.

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I recently finished The Paris Wife by Paul McLain that fictionalizes the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife Hadley Richardson from 1921 to 1927. The story is told through Hadley’s voice.

There are always two sides to a story and after discovering Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast that also focuses on his years with Hadley, I was intrigued at what her version would say. Since she didn’t write her own memoir, we have to rely on McLain’s research.

She made the time period and the characters come alive for me. Hadley and Hemingway’s meeting and early dating in Chicago felt a little cliché, but the book really sang when they moved to Paris as newlyweds. In the prologue, the narrator writes:

This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.

Of course, when someone says don’t keep watch that’s the very thing I do. Every time there was a new woman introduced into the story (and there are a lot of characters since Hadley and Ernest hung around other expat artists and their partners like the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound), I wondered if this would be the woman who destroyed their marriage.

I also kept watch for Hemingway. I noticed McLain treated him very carefully—too carefully. It seemed as if she wanted to acknowledge his cruelty towards Hadley while still making him likeable. There are hints of Hemingway’s bravado and aggression in living room boxing matches he has with friends and in his appetite for watching Spanish bull fights, but apart from one tumultuous quarrel, all his and Hadley’s marital tension is unsaid or so subtle it feels unrealistic. For a character known as a hothead, Hemingway speaks remarkably cool, reserved, and casual throughout the novel.

I felt for Hadley in the net she was caught in—trying to believe in marriage in an age and place where marriage was becoming less and less defined. Men tried keeping a wife and a mistress in the same house. Hemingway and Hadley tried this with their friend Pauline who ended up being the woman to keep watch for, and you can imagine this arrangement worked out swimmingly for everyone involved (high sarcasm there).

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, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.

Was Hadley as naive as McLain makes her out to be? I don’t know. I think you can be hopeful without being naive, but it does take her an awfully long time to clue into her husband’s infidelity. She is a good and faithful wife, but as Aritha van Herk writes in her review in The Globe and Mail, there are some definite moments in the book where Hadley could have been more nuanced, like when she loses a suitcase carrying literally all of Hemingway’s work (it was stolen on a train). She is all tears and apologies, but doesn’t she ever have moments of selfishness? Hemingway certainly did.

In reading this fictionalized memoir in the 21st century, I found it hard to completely sympathize with Hadley because she is portrayed as perfectly content to make her life dreams her husband’s. Her biggest streak of independence is playing the piano and practicing for a concert that she never ends up doing because that’s when she finds out about the affair. Certainly not every woman in this time period sacrificed like Hadley—look at Zelda Fitzgerald. Not saying she’s a healthy example either but finding your identity in your husband’s doesn’t leave you with much when the marriage dissolves.

I’d recommend reading A Moveable Feast and then The Paris Wife to see how the two accounts compare since McLain heavily drew on Hemingway’s memoir to create her version of this famous and tragic marriage.

All the Light We Cannot See

Reading this book was one of the best decisions I made in 2015.

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This was the book I was so eager to tell you about back in December . I wrote a short review of it here on The Curator that I think actually managed to avoid any spoilers (I know, you’re all shocked!)

My mom was the one who told me about this book (she has good taste every now and then haha). Even though I told her I’m partial to the classics and I rarely read historical fiction, let alone WWII novels, she still said, “Trust me, you’ll love it.”

She was right.

Anthony Doerr captured everything I love about fiction in this “miniature” novel of epic proportions: a story that moves across time, spaces, and characters. A story that surprises me, grips me, guts me, and refuses to leave me. Prose that reads like poetry for all 530 pages, with words that roll into each other with such ease it’s enviable.

Listen to this description of the heroine, Marie-Laure, meeting her Uncle:

“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it beneath your fingers.”

Sentences like this made me stop and re-read aloud for the pure pleasure of their musicality and originality. There’s so many more non-visual descriptions in this book because the reader sees through Marie-Laure’s eyes, and she’s blind. So your other senses come wondrously alive.

Put it on your reading list for 2016, and then come back and tell me what you think.

 

 

 

To remember or not to remember?

Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport – fake or real history?

M. Christine Boyer, an urban historian at Princeton, argues for the former in “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport”:

“Places like Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport are sustained not only by the pleasures of picture-writing, but by the expansion of historical tourism, the desire to ‘just look’ at the replicated and revalued artifacts and architecture of another time. Yet to historicize is to estrange, to make different, so that a gap continually widens between now and then, between an authentic and a simulated experience.”

South Street Seaport lighthouse

Her main argument in the article is that the historicized architectural forms cropping up everywhere in cities aren’t actually historic – they’re bite-sized, easily consumed freeze-framed pictures of the past intended for tourists who don’t know how little relation they actually bear to the city’s past.

“City after city discovers that its abandoned industrial waterfront or outmoded city center contains enormous tourist potential and refurbishes it as a leisure-time spectacles and sightseeing promenade.” Other examples of this recycled, clichéd waterfront tableaux: Quincy Market in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the Riverwalk in New Orleans.

Fulton Market in South Street Seaport

There’s no doubt that city planners recognize the cash value in building or preserving relics of the past in today’s cities. And this undoubtedly leads to a fine line between representing the past and commodifying it. While I agree with many of the points the author makes, I find myself resisting her critique against any attempt to historicize or represent the past. There are dangers in recreating the past in the present (out of which an inevitable gap occurs that Boyer talks about in the first quotation), but still I wonder: Isn’t there also a gap if we don’t even try to preserve a memory of the past in our cities, through such means as heritage buildings and historicized architectural forms? There’s a gap either way, and I think the risk of entirely forgetting a city’s past because there’s no visual stimuli is greater than the risk of remembering it and not necessarily getting it completely accurate.

My backlash largely stems from the fact that in my master’s essay, I argued for the importance of remembering a city’s past – Vancouver’s past, actually. Vancouver, you ask? A city that’s only been around 126 years? Yes, especially a young city like Vancouver that’s praised so much by people like Douglas Coupland as the bright and shining city of the future. This kind of rhetoric strongly risks forgetting Vancouver’s past, which happens to be not-so-shining (particularly towards Asian immigrants). I think architecture and literature about the city – historic fiction specifically – play a vital role in helping remember the diverse layers and peoples of a city. Literature has perhaps an even greater potential as a tool to remember because books last longer than buildings, which are constantly getting demolished and replaced with new ones, thereby building over and erasing the past. Literary and architectural representation are two ways that come to mind when I reflect on ways to remember the city’s past in the present – perhaps we need to brainstorm others that would lessen the historicizing gap even more.

I appreciate buildings like Woodward’s in Vancouver (left) or yes, even the South Street Seaport museum (right) where something as simple as the material or words of the building visually indicate a previous past for the site that I would not even be aware of had they not been there. I guess I’d rather remember a little than not remember at all.