Ernest & Hadley & Sara & Clara
Reading and traveling go together like wine and cheese, each enhancing the pleasures of the other. In preparation for a trip to Paris this summer to attend the Hemingway Society conference, I decided to reread A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris, written near the end of his life and published after his death. In discovering the city, he discovered his life as a writer of fiction.
I had not read Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife when it came out in 2011, so I decided to read it alongside A Moveable Feast. I would read Hemingway’s mostly true words about Paris in the twenties, when he was married to Hadley Richardson, and then read the voice of Hadley as created by McClain, narrating those same events from the fictionalized wife’s perspective. He said, she said. She said, he said.
This time, I read the “restored” edition of Feast, which includes material omitted from the initial version. At the end, the editor, Hemingway’s grandson Seán, placed a number of manuscript fragments, beginnings of the beginnings of the book, what would become the Preface. All together, read against one another in what becomes a kind of impromptu word collage/prose poem, they sound like Gertrude Stein, with her inversions and repetitions. The first fragment begins: “This book is fiction. I have left out much and changed and eliminated and I hope Hadley understands. She will see why I hope.” Another version: “This book is all fiction and the fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. Hadley is the heroine and I hope she will understand and forgive me for writing fiction, some others never will.” And another, farther down: “It was necessary to write as fiction rather than as fact and Hadley would understand I hope why it was necessary to use certain materials or fiction rightly or wrongly. All remembrance of things past is fiction and this fiction has been cut ruthlessly and people cut away just as most of the voyages are gone along with people that we cared for deeply.” In the end, what was published was this: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
So, we can say, mostly true. The Paris Wife, of course, is labeled “a novel,” a work of fiction with made-up dialogue and Hadley’s inner life imagined by the author. I turned to McClain’s “Note on Sources” at the back of the book first, and was happy to see that she had attempted “to render the particulars of their lives as accurately as possible, and to follow the very well documented historical record” as she further explored the emotional lives of these characters through her fiction.
When reading historically based novels, I now read the author’s note first, having discovered after reading Joseph O’ Connor’s Ghost Light, based on playwright J. M. Synge, that he had made up great parts of the story. O’Connor writes in his “Acknowledgments and Caveat” at the end of the book, “Ghost Light is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. … Chronologies, geographies and portrayals appearing in this novel are not to be relied upon by the researcher. …Most events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf shovel.” I had the awful feeling of not being able to go back and unlearn the story I’d absorbed. It wasn’t so much that I minded what he’d done, just that I didn’t know from the beginning to take it all with a grain of salt.
Reading the two voices, Ernest’s and Hadley’s, in a sense in dialogue with one another in my reading mind, was an enriching experience, the two perspectives intertwining to create the story of a marriage, of being young and hopeful and impetuous, of thinking you have only good in your future, of walking down cold streets at midnight, a little drunk, and being happy. It tied in with my current writing project, a biography of Sara Mayfield, herself a biographer of Hemingway’s contemporaries, the Fitzgeralds and the Menckens, Sara having been friends with Zelda Sayre and Sara Haardt in Montgomery as girls before they grew up and married their writer husbands.
Sara was a copious journal keeper and letter writer. When she first visited Paris as a teenager in 1922, she wrote, “My darling Mother & Father, So this is Paris!! It really is, I can’t believe it.” When she returned in 1926, at the age of twenty, she wrote her parents, rapturously: “A lifetime isn’t long enough to live in Paris. I have enjoyed this past week more than any other of my life.” Two years later, drawn again to Paris, she did freelance work for the Paris Herald and, after working, “frequently idled along the quais in the late sunshine, watching the boats lower their stacks as they passed under the Pont Neuf, the fishermen casting their lines from the abutments of the bridge, and the artists at their easels painting the narrow streets of the Ile de la Cité, which looked as if they might have been stage sets done by Utrillo.”
In her book on the Fitzgeralds, Sara wrote “As far as I know, philosophers have never decided what the summum bonum of life is; but Zelda and I once agreed that we would settle for being young and in love in Paris in the springtime.” And Sara did fall in love there, with a young newspaperman, writing to a friend “of swift, floating kisses, sweeter for their swiftness, of days that were a song and nights that were a dream—a Paris that shelters Beck and nurtures an old-fashioned romance!”
She might well have had with her on her trips to Paris in the 1920s a guidebook bound in blue cloth with gold lettering, published in 1924, with the sprightly title So You’re Going to Paris! I found my copy, serendipitously, in a used bookstore. The author, Clara E. Laughlin, was a Chicago writer and editor, in age of Sara’s mother’s generation, but more of Sara’s ilk, an independent woman who made her own way in the world. She loved travel all her life but came to the writing of travel books around age fifty, having founded Clara Laughlin Travel Services, specializing in foreign travel advice and planning for women. In her autobiography, Traveling Through Life, published in 1934, she describes the writing of that first travel book, the one on Paris. A good friend and the head of the book department at Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Marcella Burns Hahner, asked Clara “to write a book on Paris . . . the kind of book people seem to want when they’re going over. . . a book on Paris I can sell.” Clara protested that there were already too many books on the city, but on the way home reflected “if I ever did write a book about Paris, there were a lot of things I’d do quite differently from any travel book I’d ever seen. …I’d write it somewhat as I wrote long letters of direction to friends who were going there. I’d think of Paris from the viewpoint of one who is just beginning to adventure among its inexhaustible delights. I’d help readers find their way from one story-spot to another that was its sequence, just as I’d helped friends when I was in Paris with them….”
Nearly a hundred years later, while some of her material is dated, much is not. She writes of having occasionally been burdened by traveling companions who wished to stop at every statue, marker, or plaque and study it. “Now, I love to loiter in front of the statues of Paris—they recall so many stories, and they are so likely to be set up in places where the individual commemorated was a familiar object when he was clothed in flesh and going about his business. But Paris would not be so wonderful a Hall of Fame, to me, if it were not also so very full of people who are being moved by their traditions to make beautiful to-days and glorious to-morrows. Nothing is dead, here! Everything is going on and on, passed from hand to eager hand like a torch making plain the way of truth and beauty.” Apart from a bit of stylistic hyperbole, Laughlin’s sense of the life of the city, of the way Parisians value their past (which includes their writers and artists as well as their politicians and soldiers) while celebrating the pleasures of the present moment, rang true.
I had my own Paris moments—a walk with my own love along the Seine near the Eiffel Tower on a warm evening amongst all the city dwellers seeking a cool breeze off the river; the waiter who was willing to wink and joke with me despite my nearly nonexistent French; hearing a French military band play the American national anthem and then the French in a wooden lecture hall in the Sorbonne, followed by the two different brilliances of Adam Gopnik and Terry Eagleton, each celebrating the effect of Paris on writers who came there to find themselves; the ride in the bateau-mouche at night, passing a jazz band playing on a quay, amplified by the bridge they stood under, and watching the lights of the city slide by like a time lapse photo; the afternoon I sat in the shady hotel courtyard and ate an apple and cheese and read and wrote in my journal and was perfectly content as pigeons fluttered in the bushes and the Eiffel Tower peeked at me from over the garden wall.
Paris is a generator of moments and of stories, and nobody leaves the city without them. And while there were the few, like Ernest and Hadley, whom we still remember, who wove their way into our cultural fabric, there were many more Saras and Claras, lesser lights but lights nevertheless, whose stories I love learning about, and which deserve to be saved as well.