My last blog was a review of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. After posting I glanced through book club questions in the back, and the last one intrigued me:
Ernest Hemingway spent the last months of his life tenderly reliving his first marriage in the pages of his memoir, A Moveable Feast. In fact, it was the last thing he wrote before his death. Do you think he realized what he’d truly lost with Hadley?
To answer yes is to make a legion of first wives’ hearts flutter with pleasure. I believe he did wish he hadn’t caused the suffering and loss of his marriage to Hadley. In the last paragraphs of A Moveable Feast is the sentence, “I wished I had died before I had ever loved anyone but her.” For me, it’s also a question written by the blindly romantic for the the age battered justifier.
For a sacred moment in respect to the institution of marriage, I’ll
acknowledge Hemingway’s sincerity that Hadley was his best and truest wife. He did love her and even in the worst moments of their crumbling marriage, I believe he truly felt deeply for her.
I’ve now paid my respects and the glow is faded, in fact out. I think Hemingway’s sentence is sincere, but it is also poetic delusion.
Perspective later in life
Hemingway wrote that tender sentence after decades of living a life of astounding first-hand experiences, world-renowned literary success, countless affairs and three additional marriages. He began as a young man with emotion and promise, he finished as a man with a life passionately lived. From that far perspective he had a deep well of experience that helped judgment.
He also had the history of his later marriage choices, knew what each woman gave and took, as well as his part. If he had stayed with Hadley his life would have had the tethers of marriage.
Marriage is a compromise
Long-standing marriages always involve compromise. It doesn’t always mean compromise is from two sides; it means at least one of the partners gives when another takes. Compromise means slogging through jealousies, disappointments, and angers when you don’t get your way.
This is especially risky and difficult in a marriage that also claims to desire freedom to grow for its members. Compromise not given from a
full heart that can forgive and reasonably not think about what was compromised will grow and fester to ugly proportions in at least one partner. Could Hadley and Ernest ever have achieved this? I would guess most divorced couples believe they have already compromised more than should have been necessary.
What had he “lost” by losing Hadley?
Really. A youthful innocence? A listening support to his art? A spirit who loved him when he was a nobody? A woman who didn’t compete for her own fame? A rudder keeping him on a steadier course instead of encouraging or allowing his excesses? Anything sweet I’ve forgotten here?
In rereading the list I notice they are all about Hemingway and what every person encounters when they step into the arena of being an adult. Perhaps he had lost his gatekeeper, the warmth of a nest, a sweetness not to be found again. I feel a little twinge of empathy for Hemingway here because all of these are good reasons to miss a person, but they don’t reflect any future the two would have had together. They are a reflection of Barbra Streisand’s nostalgic song, “The Way We Were.” It is time-stuck romanticism.
The Paris Wife read like a The Bridges of Madison County on a French stage. They are both for a “good woman” reader who wants to look back at a relationship and believe she and she alone, was the best thing he ever had.
What about Hadley?
Hemingway’s sweet reminisce idealizes a time he lived over thirty years earlier to a woman who would have changed. How long would she have stayed as she was and how likely is it she would have continued to
mature in the way he needed? At age sixty he was comparing a memory of a woman he knew with the woman she became through the more nurturing marriage she had lived the past twenty-five years with Paul Mowrer, and without him, Ernest.
Hemingway knew himself
Get down, dirty, and real. Lives of passionate people who chase experience, learning, and new love experiences are littered with detritus. I’ll give Hemingway credit for knowing himself well enough to write he should have “died before loving anyone but her.” He was an insightful man. He saw through facades to deeper layers within himself and believed he would have had to die to live a life with Hadley as his only love. It was not his nature, nor within his ability, to have stayed with her or to have made her happy.
Why am I so wordy here?
First layer: McClain’s sappy book club question was aimed for cheap sentimentality.
Second layer: I’ve been married over forty years and I know people have delusions about long-term marriage when they have not had one. (I have delusions, just not this one.)
Third layer: I have my own sentimental wishes of regret in life and by smashing Hemingway’s I can smash my own and free myself to the realization that, to me, is a truer belief.
There is music and purpose in God’s universe beyond what we realize. I believe in an ultimate goodness that is taking all of us through time in our slow, shadowed, groping steps and we should not regret our lives, though we should appreciate, love, and remember.