A disservice to each Mrs Hemingway
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-