Friday, September 14, 2012

And Then Everybody Got Head Lice

If you read my last post, you know that things weren’t going exactly swimmingly around here in the first place.  But one thing I learned in teaching public school that seems to carry over into parenting is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.  Enter head lice.  And this was only day nine (NINE!) of school.  We’re over it now, and it’s a rite of passage, I know – I’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this one for years.  So things have been discouraging, of late.

However!  I have read something really great that I need to share with you.  The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain.

In a nutshell, The Paris Wife is a novelized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, during which Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises.  It reminded me of Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, which is of a similar type (Frank Lloyd Wright being the focus of Horan’s work).  Have you read that one?  If not, put both on your list immediately.

Shifting back to McLain. If you don’t know this yet, allow me to clear it up:  Ernest Hemingway, though a literary giant, was also a misogynistic asshole.  He treated Hadley like absolute shit, much of the time.  (Also, another issue.  He was really into boxing.  Like, the sport.  So Ernest and Hadley would be at dinner, or having drinks or something, and all of a sudden Ernest is talking someone into trying to beat the crap out of each other. That shit would get old, FAST.)  I direct you to Exhibit A, if you need proof of this:

Exhibit A

(However, in the interest of providing all the information, I must note here that the young Ernest was truly something to, uh, notice. Observe.)

How you doin’? 

On the other hand, here’s what years of hard living will do to you, especially if you hang out with alcoholic artists all the time.  It’s like Wilford Brimley got smacked in the face with a two-by-four.

The Cancellation of "Our House": The Aftermath
Wilford Brimley Goes on a Bender

Enough with the pictures already, GAWD.  So Hemingway and Richardson married in 1920 and moved to Paris shortly thereafter so that Ernest could begin serious writing in an amenable creative atmosphere.  The Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas populate the book, which makes for an interesting read for anyone interested in the Modernist movement or in writers in general.  The friendship and sense of community among the group’s members is centrally important to the novel.  In fact, the thing I liked best about The Paris Wife was the picture it painted of Hadley, as a friend.  She sounds like a girl’s girl – somebody I’d love to hang out with.  She was never intimidated by anyone, could hold her own in a conversation with the most brilliant minds of her time, and was poised yet self-deprecating and humble. Hadley was immensely likeable.  I have no idea if this is a true portrayal, though I assume it must be based on fact. In the book, those of Hadley’s circle repeatedly make comments like “Everything’s more fun when you’re here” or “You might be the best girl there is” or “Everyone loves you.”  (Meanwhile, Ernest is drunk and throwing haymakers at John Dos Passos like a jackass.)

Hemingway, in complete contrast to Hadley, was a difficult personality.  He ended friendships abruptly, even with Gertrude Stein, who was for years his primary champion and mentor.  By the end of his life, he was divorced three times (and married four).  He was estranged from his family for most of his life.  (His family is a-whole-nother jarful of crazy.  Apparently his father, sister, and brother, in addition to Hemingway, all committed suicide.  Horrifying.)  But I realized something, as I read about Hadley’s relationship with Ernest.  You see, she loved him.  She adored him.  So they were a team, and I would argue that she was every bit as important to American letters during that period as he was. 

For example.  Near the beginning of the novel, Hadley remarks that Ernest’s “preoccupation with his work made [her] sharply aware that [she] had no passion of [her] own.”  This must be not only typical of these types of relationships, but necessary.  I remember talking to a woman at my son’s baseball game a few months back.  Her husband was in training for an Ironman event in which he would do something ungodly like run a marathon, bike the circumference of the earth, and then swim the Bering Strait or something equally horrific (yes, I know I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture).  I asked her if she was training with him and she looked at me like I was crazy.  “No,” she said.  “You can’t have two of those in one family.”  And from a purely practical standpoint, and as unfair as it is, I think she’s right.  Only one member gets to be passionate about something outside the marital/familial scope. The other has to take care of everything else in order to enable this.  In the Hemingways’ marriage, Hadley was responsible for supporting Ernest, both financially (she received a small inheritance which made Paris life possible) and more importantly, she supported him emotionally.  Later Hadley notes, “I was essential to [the new baby], and to Ernest, too.  I made everything run, now.”  Without her support, his work wasn’t possible.

I know this is passé – I know a thousand feminist writers have beaten this dead horse for years. But in thinking about caretaking versus creating art, I then started thinking about Sylvia Plath.  She was passionate about her husband and her kids and her writing, all three.  Plath tried to manage (womanage?) both roles – the writer and the caretaker.  She also ended up dead by suicide at age 30.  Maybe it is impossible to balance both roles, still, even today, in the year 2012, when everything is supposed to be equal. (HahahahaHA.)  Maybe we all need a“wife” – someone to take up the slack, to meet the emotional needs and do the freaking laundry.  (Unfortunately, Ted Hughes was a piss-poor substitute for a “wife.” But I digress.)  Sorry for the soapbox moment.  I guess this book just got me thinking about women’s roles in general.

Anyway, I enjoyed the The Paris Wife.  Hemingway’s unfailing commitment to his work was astonishing.  I guess it would take nothing less than an egomaniac to continue to write and write and write without being published, yet never doubt that what he was doing was supremely important.  That it would change the face of literature.  Which he did, in the end, but I find it amazing that he knew this all along.  His arrogance was unbridled, but perhaps it needed to be. 

Happy reading.


  1. I want to talk about this role thing more. I love this topic of discussion, I could talk about it for hours.

    1. I know, and we HAVE! You would like both of these books.

  2. We got head lice on day 4 of school. It was a rite of passage I could very gladly have done without. BUT, I'm adding these books to my "to read" list!

    1. Rochelle, I'm so sorry. As I was writing this, I figured you (with FOUR kids) could relate!