This season, two extraordinarily fine novels have come out. One is about Hemingway’s first wife and her life in Paris with the writer. The other is about dissident art in Vietnam. Both are more than worth your time.
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain distills the expatriate life of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway – it’s the world of A Moveable Feast experienced from a woman’s point of view. Lots of people call Ernest Hemingway a misogynist. I think nothing could be further from the truth. He reserves both his most tender and most scathing characterizations for the women in his novels. They don’t get as much ink as the men, but they are much more telling. (How can Lady Brett not break your heart at the end of The Sun Also Rises, with her summation of the Almighty, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”) Hemingway’s years with Hadley were some of his most productive and most interesting. Her presence and personality inevitably colored his writing. Scattered with characters like Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds, The Paris Wife is a feast indeed, and the Paris it draws –the bars, the cafes, the clamorous neighborhood surrounding the Hemingways’ deeply crummy little apartment– seems a character too, gathering artists, writers, thinkers together under wings as dusty and soft as the pigeons scratching in the Tuileries.*
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a glorious book with a horrible title. Even some marketing folks at Penguin think the moniker is pretty bad. The story is a delight. Here too, the setting is almost a character in itself. Moody, ever-changing, improvising like an actor, it remakes itself from a past of infinite sadness with great courage.
Here is a story of the divide and connection between survivors and their children, between foreigners returning and those who never left, between artists and their legacies, the living and the dead. It’s beautiful and sad and revealing and, once you’re done with it, the title doesn’t seem so stupid after all.
Since Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir came out, we’ve all had to hear again about how some things you know you know, and some things you know you don’t know, and some things you don’t know that you don’t know. And yes, we all had a good laugh at his strangely poetic expense. But I have to say, like him or hate him; that is what novels are all about. Fiction – stories – are about telling each other what we don’t know that we don’t know. There are so many things in this life that it never occurs to us to ask. Sometimes we don’t know the right questions because one of us is male and one is female, or one of us is old and one of us is young – because we come from different places or different pasts. The best fiction doesn’t just tell the truth – it reveals mystery.
It’s spring now. There are crocuses coming up through the mud. The dog is shedding and daylight savings will soon be here. It’s time to celebrate crunchy-granola-type things like new beginnings and getting up in the dark. In that spirit, let me suggest this: Ask someone today, “Tell me a story.” You never know what you might hear.
And now, a little poetry from Donald Rumsfeld:
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing (Stolen from Slate Magazine)
*And yes, in case you were wondering, Hemingway did say that he used to shoot and eat them (the pigeons, I mean).