It’s just possible that Ernest Hemingway is more written about than read these days. In the last three year, he has popped up in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, various books about F Scott Fitzgerald and Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat. Naomi Wood’s second novel resurrects ‘Papa H’ again through his four wives: Hadley Richardson, Pauline ‘Fife’ Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.
Hemingway’s romantic entanglements lend themselves easily to fiction, not least because he was prone to re-imagining them himself. A Moveable Feast’s sentimentalised account of perfect Hadley being usurped by nasty Fife exists in different forms than the published version. Wood smartly incorporates Hemingway’s knack for turning people into characters into Mrs Hemingway: the nicknames he invented, often immediately, for his spouses (Hash, Fife, Marty, Pickle); or when he recasts his marriage to Mary as Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice.
Although the novel is divided into four sections, it is really a game of two halves. The first captures Hemingway’s rising sun as artistic pioneer, bohemian adventurer, ultra-competitive author and lothario who was catnip to men and women alike. In Wood’s re-telling, this Hemingway is often curiously charmless: a vain, driven materialist who fuses the value of art with what he might earn, and follows his genitals like a thirsty man after a dowsing rod. Most startlingly for someone who prided himself on activity both physical and mental, he is stubbornly passive where emotions are concerned. The scenes in Antibes are purgatorial as our barrel-chested hero vacillates cruelly about which ‘une’ to shed from his ménage a trois.
Each succeeding section essentially repeats this template as one mistress-wife is displaced in her turn. The effect is like a game of erotic pass the parcel in which four over-excited players tear open a splendid, handsome box only to find an increasingly disgruntled, fat pig inside.
The mood grows increasingly melancholy in the second half. The dwindling of Hemingway’s creative potency is contrasted against the two intelligent, independent young journalists he marries: Gellhorn and then Welsh. By now, Wood’s careful structure is paying off as our sympathies expand. So the devilish Fife of section one becomes more understandable, if not entirely likeable when she speaks in her own words in section two and re-appears in part four.
The elegiac final chapters depicting the aftermath of Hemingway’s suicide are beautifully achieved. Hemingway himself attains a sorrowful grandeur in old age, even if his self-loathing, misogyny, violence, alcoholism, paranoia and refusal (or inability) to choose happiness in life over art never win you over. What lingers is Mary’s enduring courage as she faces the loneliness that Hemingway tried so hard to avoid.
Many questions remain. Wood’s impressionist method offers snapshots of a marriage rather than a portrait of an age. But the elegant prose and finely-wrought narrative of this humane novel exceed the sum of its parts.