A dis­ser­vice to each Mrs Hem­ing­way

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Matthew Clay­field

Mrs Hem­ing­way By Naomi Wood Pi­cador, 256pp, $29.99 A FRIEND of mine, a Hem­ing­way scholar and long-time bull-run­ner, once met Nor­man Mailer. He can­not re­mem­ber much of the evening, but he re­mem­bers the most im­por­tant part.

“Nor­man,” he asked at the height of their ine­bri­a­tion, “why do we drink?” “Be­cause we hurt,” Mailer replied. It’s the sort of thing Ernest Hem­ing­way might have writ­ten, but it’s hardly the sort of thing he would ever have ac­tu­ally said. He left hon­esty and soul-bear­ing for his work and de­stroyed most of the re­la­tion­ships in his life by sup­press­ing such sen­ti­ments out­side of it.

As ev­i­dence of his sen­si­tiv­ity, we have the best of his work. As ev­i­dence against it, we have the lit­er­ary pe­nis-mea­sure­ment, ad hominem at­tacks and all-round machismo of his worst. Some­where be­tween these two poles we have the ev­i­dence of his life and, es­pe­cially, his mar­riages. That he hurt seems ob­vi­ous. Ex­actly why and how he hurt — long the great blue mar­lin of schol­ars and bi­og­ra­phers — is a more com­pli­cated ques­tion.

Go­ing on the ev­i­dence of Mrs Hem­ing­way, English writer Naomi Wood doesn’t re­ally know how to an­swer it. In this novel she floats a few of the usual the­o­ries — his ha­tred of his mother comes up, his fa­ther’s sui­cide looms large — but ul­ti­mately set­tles on the vague and clunky sug­ges­tion that “maybe Ernest had had more than ev­ery man’s sack­ful of dark­ness”.

That Hem­ing­way was enig­matic is widely known. But Wood’s Hem­ing­way is so opaque as to be prac­ti­cally in­vis­i­ble: more a com­plex of com­plexes — or, worse, a collection of sec­ond­hand car­i­ca­tures — than a fully-formed char­ac­ter, let alone a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure.

This would per­haps be ac­cept­able were his wives, the os­ten­si­ble hero­ines of the piece, more than mere projections of their au­thor. With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Martha Gell­horn, the eas­i­est of the wives for con­tem­po­rary read­ers (and au­thors) to iden­tify with, Hadley Richard­son, Pauline Pfeiffer and Mary Welsh are never sat­is­fac­to­rily dif­fer­en­ti­ated from one an­other. All four wives share turns of phrase (‘‘on the sauce” pops up a lot) and an im­pec­ca­ble and un­likely sense of smell. Their thoughts tend to be ren­dered — again with Gell­horn an oc­ca­sional out­lier — in a sin­gle elo­quent but un­chang­ing prose style. Wood’s at­tempts at imag­i­na­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion have a ten­dency to erase the women’s speci­ficity.

Mrs Hem­ing­way is not with­out its charms. Wood’s struc­ture is first among these. The book is neatly di­vided into four sec­tions, one for each wife, which de­tail the end of each mar­riage in present tense while flash­ing back through its key mo­ments in past. Each wife’s story over­laps with the last: Woods’ sug­ges­tion, late in the book, that “each decade has its trip­tych” dou­bles as her key or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple.

The level of re­search that has gone into the book is im­pres­sive, but not al­ways well-

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