Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Reading group: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

This recent novel, Jenny's suggestion, is based on the real-life experiences of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway. It consists of four sections, each devoted to the viewpoint of one of the wives at the point of the breakdown or end of the marriage when Hemingway already has another prospective wife lined up, or, in the case of the last wife, Mary, shoots himself and dies. Jenny was afraid that the rest of us would find it too trashy, as it has been a popular success, and was cheaply available at Tesco's, but several of us had had the impression from reviews that it was in fact well-written, and so we readily agreed.

A few days later I met Mark and he'd already begun reading it. He said he was bowled over by it, and I was inclined to agree, having glanced at the first page or two and found the prose spare and evocative. However, when it came to the meeting, only Mark and Trevor were wholeheartedly admiring, which Trevor suggested might be a man thing (implying I think a self-ironic identification with Hemingway), although I'm not sure Mark went along with that, and neither John nor Doug were entirely in favour of the book. We had all found it an easy read, but John spoke for others of us in saying that it didn't somehow fulfil its promise. Jenny said that she'd enjoyed reading it (as I think most of us did), and she was very taken by the book's structure. She said she had never liked Hemingway and, having read the book, she disliked him a whole lot more. However, she felt that he wasn't fleshed out.

I picked up on this last, agreeing. I said that we never properly get to see what is attractive about Hemingway to these women. Mark and Trevor disagreed. Mark (I think) said, wasn't the point of the book the women, and their experience, not Hemingway? I replied that since the whole point about the women is their fatal attraction to Hemingway, an attraction which dominated and ruined or deeply affected their lives, then in order to fully understand the women we need to fully appreciate that attraction. The objection came back: isn't it made abundantly clear that he's charismatic and wonderfully good-looking? I said that it isn't enough to be told that he is, which I agreed we are, right from the start in first wife Hadley's section: 'In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him.' A novel needs to do more than tell you things, it needs to make the reader share experience (in this case the women's overwhelming attraction to Hemingway). Although I feel I know in theory exactly the kind of man Hemingway must have been, and have known men like him and know their attraction, I didn't in reading this book experience a sense of Hemingway's. In fact, although I know very well what Hemingway looked like, I didn't come away with any vivid sense of how precisely he may have looked to a wife in any particular scene in this book: as Jenny had indicated, I didn't get any real sense of his physical presence: he came over more as an idea, and a shallow one at that.

John said he was never clear what attitude to Hemingway the author had, or intended you to have. There was now a brief discussion about Hemingway, about the psychological mechanism behind his serial monogamy, the fact that although he was an adulterer, his longing was for monogamy, yet he always destroyed his marriages with adultery: the fact, in other words, that he needed security and a mummy figure but always also wanted a new toy - a typical sexist paradigm. This discussion was conducted mainly among us women, and the general tone was dismissively feminist. I said however that I thought that this was, on the contrary, something to do with Hemingway's attraction. Hemingway's short stories betray a refined sensibility - they could only have been written by a sensitive person. John joined in here and said yes, the point was that he was a sensitive man in an age and place where sensitivity wasn't acceptable in men, when what was considered desirable was machismo, which is enough to send any sensitive man into crisis. I suggested what I do strongly believe, which is that it was this sensitivity that was attractive to the women - or perhaps more accurately the poignancy of the paradox: the sensitivity and vulnerability beneath the machismo front - and why they were so driven to care for him, his second wife Fife long after the end of their marriage and even through his next two marriages. I didn't get any real, somatic sense of this in the novel. In other words, I felt that the situation called for a closer, more psychological anatomisation of a crisis in machismo than I felt this novel achieved - important, even if the viewpoint is that of the women, since it was their precise concern and focus, and so devastating for them.

There was disagreement among us about the depiction of the women. Jenny and Mark in particular liked the differing perspectives, the fact that the Other Woman becomes the suffering wife and, having seen her as a threat from outside, you then adopt her viewpoint. Others of us liked this too, but John, Ann and I felt that the wives were not sufficiently differentiated. John had said earlier that he found the book repetitious: you got the point about the situation in the first section and after that it was simply repeated, and Mark and Trevor had countered that the whole essence of the situation was repetition, which seemed a fair enough point. However, we felt that there was something repetitive about the characters too. People objected, But surely the women were clearly very different characters, Hadley the rather pedestrian and domestic first wife, Fife the society gal, Martha Gellhorn the tough journalist, and Mary the last wife perhaps the most sensible. We said, but we didn't find their voices differentiated. As Ann and I pointed out, although every section is written in the third person, that third is intimate, and there could have been a greater differentiation of language, which would have created clearer differentiation of psychology in the wives. Ann suggested that the real-life history is so well known and well documented and digested that this both got in the way of a fully novelistic depiction of the characters and allows a reader to compensate for the lack and to read into the text what he/she already knows. For us, however, it remained a lack.

I also found a similar lack of attention in the prose, disappointingly after my first impression, and the book therefore less well written than Mark considered, and than several reviews had led me to believe. There are metaphors the constructions of which have unintentionally comical effects: insects whir not like cogs but 'as if all their cogs were motoring along' (how many insects have cogs?) and a group of visitors don't just leave 'like a school of fish' but with 'silver-flecked skin... flashing'. Some metaphors and similes are ill thought through. I was pulled up short by the construction of 'Peonies rise from pots as big as fists', by being quite unable to visualise it and thinking: But flowerpots are bigger than fists, aren't they? Oh, peonies! But aren't peonies bigger than fists anyway?' all of which entirely deflected me from an interesting intimation of violence which I now see. I laughed out loud at 'Cuba became one solid raindrop' as a description of rain, though I'm sure I wasn't intended to, and I am still puzzled by the idea that a hefty box could 'gleam like a tooth', a tooth conjuring the idea of something small. I didn't have the chance to point out these instances, though, and Trevor remained adamant that the book was very well written, and as we finished the discussion, Mark and Trevor were unbent in their enthusiasm for the book.

Doug hadn't in fact been able to make the meeting, but he sent the following comments, tending to agree with those who had been more critical:

"A bit of an enigma for me, just as the main man was in this depiction.  I liked the hints made about Hemingway, but it was also frustrating that he was not more real; the reasons why the women were so fascinated by him were never clear and I didn't get any sense of the obvious charm that he must have had.

As for the women, the first 3 came across as quite stereotyped.  The homely one, the conniving one, the independent one.  But then redemption in the final character.  I thought the section with Mary was superb.  The real sense of melancholy exuded by Hemingway and the beautifully expressed grief and loneliness of Mary in the aftermath of his death.  Mary will stick in my memory while the others fade quickly away."

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.
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