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.

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Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

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The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.

Jude the Obscure: Lost in Contrast

I don’t know what to make of Jude the Obscure. The last of Thomas Hardy’s novels, it was published in 1895 and received such rancorous attacks that the author renounced fiction and switched to poetry.

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What is in this book that so scandalized its Victorian audience? There are a lot of things going on—too many, in my opinion, which deprive it of any sense of unity and cohesiveness. What is clear, however, is that the book lays a heavy critique on marriage, Christianity, and England’s class system.

The plot centres on Jude, an eleven-year old orphaned boy living with his aunt in the town of Marygreen, situated in Hardy’s fictional region of Wessex. After he finishes school, Jude gains employment as a stone mason though he dreams of life as a university scholar or, as a back-up plan, a minister. He teaches himself Latin and Greek to be able to read the classics, all the time setting his sights on the radiant city of Christminster, the epicentre of higher learning or the “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Jude is a man with a single-minded purpose, working towards a better life but being thwarted at every attempt. The first obstacle is a woman, Arabella Donn, an equally obscure daughter of a pig farmer who woos the naïve and easily love-struck Jude. She traps him into marriage by pretending she is pregnant. Here is a small example of Hardy’s critique against marriage:

There seemed to [Jude], vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour. . .

It doesn’t take long for Jude and Arabella to both be unhappy in the marriage, so Arabella leaves Jude and marries another man. Jude moves to Christminster, getting work as a stone mason while writing letters to the universities to see if one will let him in based on the merits of his self-erudition. But he can’t compete with the likes of boys who spent their lives under trained teachers, and the only other option is to buy himself in. That really isn’t an option though since he’d have to save 15 years’ worth of his salary to do so. The second obstacle to his dream is his class position. Lonely and despairing, he heads to a tavern and there discovers his weakness for alcohol that will get him in trouble later.

The “bright light” in the midst of Jude’s early sufferings is his cousin Sue Bridehead who lives in Christminster and who Jude gets to know and, against his own better judgment, falls in love with. A free-spirited thinker very much a forerunner of feminism, Sue defies all norms of Victorian society with her inclination for pagan philosophy and her fierce critiques of the Church and marriage. And yet she marries Jude’s former schoolteacher, Richard Phillotson, out of social convention and pressure. Not surprisingly, she’s extremely unhappy and with the eventual permission of her husband, leaves him for Jude. However, she and Jude don’t get married because neither of them want to repeat their mistakes with their first spouses. They look at marriage as nothing more than a contract that robs a relationship of true feeling. So Jude and Sue live together happily, have two kids of their own, as well as look after Jude and Arabella’s young boy nicknamed “Father Time” for his older-than-his-years cynicism towards life.

Once Sue’s and Jude’s divorces go through and their scandal is known throughout the region, it’s hard for Jude to get or keep a job anywhere. They become nomads, thwarting Jude’s dreams even more, although he has largely given up on them anyway. Instead of  studying at Christminster, he and Sue start their own pastry business selling “Christminster cakes”, a poor imitation or mockery of Jude’s life-long aspirations. Sue’s independence also ruins Phillotson, who cannot get a job anywhere because no one has any respect for him.

You can probably see why this is called Hardy’s bleakest novel. But this isn’t even the worst of it. Aware that they are poor and cannot find lodgings anywhere with such a big family and another one on the way, Father Time hangs his two younger siblings and then himself, leaving Jude and Sue childless. Sue loses her third baby in childbirth.

It is after this horrifying tragedy that Jude and Sue switch places. Overcome by grief and convinced the murders are punishment for her illegitimate relationship with Jude, Sue becomes a self-sacrificing, dogma-quoting Christian convinced she needs to return to her first husband. Phillotson takes her back, not because he loves her still, but because it is the “social good” and would somewhat redeem their earlier disaster. On the flip side, Jude loses any last vestiges of his Christian faith and denounces it because of the submissive weakling it has made of Sue. He broadens his views, but the miry ground that leads him to is arguably just as alarming as Sue’s newfound rigidity. He explains his precarious inner compass to the townspeople in Christminster:

I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best.

In the meantime, Arabella has come back into the picture. Her second husband dies, leaving her free to pursue/trap Jude again. And she does by getting him drunk and making him promise to marry her. Shortly after marrying Arabella, Jude contracts a bad illness and dies alone and unmourned. Arabella is already in pursuit of her next husband.

The book has come full circle and as the reader, I felt a little sick, as if I’ve just come off a roller coaster where I’ve been spinning around and upside down for the past 300 pages. I was baffled by this ending. At one point, I thought that maybe Arabella and Phillotson would pair up, but never did I imagine for the first matches to repeat themselves.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jude the Obscure because Hardy presents two extremes through Jude and Sue, neither of which are attractive. It’s common to root for a character or the philosophy they represent in a novel, but Hardy only gives the reader two options, as per his intentions:

Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is!—e.g., Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude’s reading the Greek testament; Christminster academical, Christminster in the slums; Jude the saint, Jude the sinner; Sue the Pagan, Sue the saint; marriage, no marriage; etc. etc.

The character foil is intentional in terms of highlighting Jude’s and Sue’s differences, but it leaves little room for exploring the nuances of being human in our world, even a world that is admittedly unfair. With refreshing honesty, we read above how Jude replaces his black and white opinions for grey ones, but we don’t see that same nuance in Hardy’s novel regarding marriage, Christianity, or society. To attack all three without showing anything redeeming in their portrayals shows an author disillusioned, contemptuous, or depressed.

There is very little hope in this story. Critic Barry Swartz calls it a lament instead of a tragedy because Jude doesn’t create his own defeat, only the mode of his defeat. Fate is against him from the start, the conclusion of which is captured in Father Time’s reflective question, “It would be better to be out o’ the world than in it, wouldn’t it?”

Jude the Obscure explores the existential questions coming into the philosophy of Hardy’s day, making it a bridge between Victorian and Modernist literature. It addresses the loneliness and futility of man, and perhaps the loneliness of Hardy, who, like his two principal characters, experiences a similar backlash from society for the views he presents. Near the end of his life, Jude laments:

As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessnes and ruin on me!

Two weeks later, I am still processing the obscurities in Jude the Obscure would like some company. How do you read this book? Is it a lament or an avoidable tragedy? Are his contrasts helpful? What makes the book obscure or illuminating for you?