Every year I prepare for our return trips to France by immersing myself in literature. Long before I board a plane, I’m walking the streets of Paris, sitting in cafes, and strolling through markets. Last year I plunged into Julia Child’s Paris, from her first days as an older newlywed trying to forge her own identity in a foreign country to her growing passion for cooking. This year I’ll be seeing Paris through Ernest and Hadley Hemingway’s eyes after reading a Moveable Feast and the Paris Wife.
At times, reading the Paris Wife was downright painful. The story is told from Hadley Hemingway’s viewpoint, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. She meets him in Chicago as a sheltered and sickly young woman and agrees to marry him and move to Europe after a long distance courtship of a few months. They scrape the funds together to move to Paris to join the growing artistic American expat scene there. From their first meeting, she feels inadequate, not as alive or creative as Hemingway or his friends. She never loses her inferiority complex and seeing the world through her insecure eyes is uncomfortable. When they visit with Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound, she sits with the other “wives” and although she notes the separation, she doesn’t rebel and join Hemingway.
Hemingway’s drive to write true sentences and to collect experiences like the bullfighting is all seen through Hadley’s eyes, a woman who questions her contributions and only finds her purpose, “her own project” once she conceives a child against Hemingway’s wishes. Having such a passive narrator is incredibly frustrating. Their relationship disintegrates once Hadley gives birth to Bumby and Ernest falls in love with another woman. After a failed attempt at a menage a trois, Hadley returns to the States with her child and leaves the Paris life behind.
Reading a Moveable Feast after The Paris Wife is a relief. Finally I saw Hemingway’s Paris, his days spent writing in his notebook at cafes ordering a single cafe creme. He spies a beautiful woman and says, “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again. … You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” Instead of seeing Paris as a temptress filled with others competing for Hemingway’s attention, a Moveable Feast is filled with sensations, with crisp bottles of white wine, tragic horse races, and inspirations for writing at every turn. And with each page, Paris becomes more vivid, more real, preparing us for our annual summer trip.