Book Review: The Old Man and his four wives

Sunday, 4 May 2014 - 6:35am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Book review: Mrs Hemingway
Author: Naomi Wood
Publishing House: Picador
Cost: Rs599
320 pages

Ernest Hemingway's way with women is the stuff of literary legend. Yet, as you make your way through Naomi Wood's Mrs Hemingway, there is the nagging suspicion that his dependency on women is far deeper than what is generally believed.

Wood's literary exploration into the lives of Hemingway's women opens with his first wife Hadley Richardson's account of their time together.

She tells you how he playfully swims with her on a humid summer morning, paying close attention to her. He pulls her in his arms and as they dry themselves on the beach, he kisses her. There is nothing to suggest that anything is amiss. It is only after a while that you get to know that he is on a vacation with Hadley and her friend, Pauline 'Fife' Pfeiffer. And that he is simultaneously involved with both the women.

The menage a trois remain silent in their foreboding, waiting for something to happen, each trying not to be the one to break the silence. Hemingway is dependent on both women, and does not want to break his ties with either. Eventually, it is the generous Hadley who decides to step away to make way for Fife.

This is a man who never remained unmarried — through his 40-year literary career. "[…] women […] snap their heads to watch him go and they don't stop looking until he's gone," says Hadley, with an unmistakable tinge of jealousy. Hemingway's literary ingenuity is as big a draw as his devastating good looks.

A lot has been written about Hemingway's works and the times he lived in. In the last few years, there has been keen interest in exploring his relationships with the women in his life. Paula McLain's The Paris Wife (2012), a fictional exploration of his relationship with Hadley and her short-lived marriage in Paris, was a first in trying to understand the role women played in shaping the life of one of the twentieth century's most prolific writers.

Wood's book takes this forward, by looking at his relationship with his four wives. There is the hapless Hadley 'Hash' Richardson, the daring Pauline 'Fife' Pfeiffer, the adventurous war scribe Martha 'Marty' Gellhorn, and finally, the admiring journalist Mary 'Pickle' Welsh. Hemingway moves to another woman while he is still somewhat tangled with the previous.

Wood recreates the various time spans that shape Hemingway — internally, his journey as a writer, and externally, at global events that unfold around him. Driven by his passion and the need to earn his living, one sees how he, in his initial years, writes with fervour. As you draw close to the time he takes his own life, Hemingway increasingly becomes a disgruntled man, discontent with his worldly failings as a man.

The novel spans his life from the 1920s in Paris to the Cold War America of the 1960s.

Wood recreates many telling moments with great sensitivity — when his mother gives him the gun with which his father shot himself, or the time after his death when Mary collects her memories in a box.

Hemingway's disdain for his mother is also well-known: he is said to have skipped her funeral in the early 1930s.

The book is constructed through letters and telegrams and Wood's visits to key places. It is in four parts where each wife is given a chance to tell her story.

Each of his four wives believes that she alone can give Hemingway the stability he needs; and for the most part he believes so. But, that's only for a while, till he moves on again. As he reaches a point where he realises that the stability he is looking for will forever elude him, Hemingway becomes impossible to handle. He is depressed and drunk. In his last years, Hemingway becomes the antithesis of what he once was.

Wood's book is a sensitively done literary exploration. There are misses, and there is a fair bit of fictionalising. Yet, it is an enjoyable read.

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