Book Review : Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Mrs Hemingway tells the story of Ernest through the eyes of his 4 wives : Hadley (Hash); Pauline (Fife); Martha and lastly Mary.

The action spans from 1925 to 1961 and the aftermath of Ernest’s suicide. We visit pre and post war Paris, Key West ,Cuba and Ketchum, Idaho.The book is split into 4 parts each telling the story through the eyes of the particular wife at the time.

This may sound a little disjointed but each section dovetails neatly into the next due to Naomi Wood’s flowing style of writing and, to an extent, Hemingway himself.Ernest didn’t discard a wife until he had another one lined up…….Pauline was Hadley’s best friend in those early Paris years, Martha stayed with Pauline and Hemingway in Key West,Pauline came to live with Mary and Hemingway for a while …. and so the stories each overlap as the old wife has to give way to the new. Pauline reflects at the end of her marriage:

What a pull he has ! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars.Women turn their eyes  from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

Wood also uses the clever device of  character Harry Cuzzemano , a second -hand book dealer and muck raker, who weaves in and out of each section binding them together. He first surfaces to Hadley on the search for a missing suitcase containing Hemingway’s lost first novel. This references a real episode in Hemingway’s life when Hadley, on her way to Switzerland to meet her then unknown and struggling writer husband, left a suitcase containing the only draft of his first novel on the platform of the Gare de Lyon.

As Hemingway’s fame and reputation grow, the sleazy Cuzzemano seeks first the whereabouts of the suitcase, then any evidence of infidelity with Martha Gelhorn from Pauline, a lost poem from Martha and ending ostensibly seeking return of his own blackmailing letters from Mary ,whilst making off with any scraps of memorabilia he can find.

Of course the story of the break up of Hadley and Ernest has been well documented . Hemingway himself wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises and then, years later and with the benefit of hindsight ,in A Moveable Feast published posthumously. More recently, Pauline McLain imagined the breakdown of the marriage in The Paris Wife.

I thought the most interesting wife in  the story was Pauline.We see her first as the predatory ‘best friend ‘ with designs on the husband. By 1938 in Florida, she is the soon to be discarded wife, still desperately in love with her husband but unable to do anything to divert him from the spell cast by the young and beautiful aspiring journalist Martha Gelhorn. Pauline was the mother of his two younger sons and remained a presence in his life right to the end. She died in 1951 of a hear attack shortly after a bitter telephone argument with Ernest over their troubled son, Gregory.

Through the eyes of Martha and then Mary we see Hemingway’s descent into alcoholism and depression.

Hemingway’s passionate affair with Martha led to a brief marriage. She was the only one of his wives to leave him ….and never speak to him again.Her admiration for Hemingway soon turned to contempt. Searching for him in war-torn  Paris (to tell him she wants a divorce) she is told that her husband has  liberated The Ritz with a troop of soldiers :

Martha hates the way he throws himself around a city with all the swagger of a warlord.She hates, too, that other people can’t see past his phony heroism. So he has liberated The Ritz! Of course he would.

The Pig knew it was the one place that wouldn’t have run dry.

It was with Mary that Hemingway had his longest and most stable marriage. Despite the many happy years in Cuba  spent on the deck of his boat Pilar  and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1954, Mary is powerless to prevent the creep of alcoholism and his illness. He feels his powers as a writer are waning not helped by his bouts of heavy drinking and periods of hospitalisation for electric shock treatment. As Hemingway had written many years before to F Scott Fitzgerald :

That terrible mood of depression of whether it is any good or not is what is known as The Artist’s Curse.

This a wonderfully evocative novel.Wood clearly has a love of the subject matter and has researched it meticulously. She doesn’t allow the research however to get in the way of her vivid imagination.The story and its unhappy ending are well known but Naomi Wood’s prose gave it a freshness that kept me gripped all the way through.

Book Review : Little Failure by Gary Sheyngart

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Life is constantly changing for Gary. Born a Soviet citizen, he becomes a citizen of the USA. Named Igor by his parents, he changes to Gary in his adopted homeland, for reasons which are obvious to any native English speaker. Even his city of birth keeps changing its name….from  the original St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad….and finally back to St Petersburg again. No wonder he is confused!

Little Failure is the autobiography of US and jewish author Gary Shteyngart. The title comes from his parents’ nickname for him as a child . A constant source of disappointment to them, his nickname eventually becomes Failurchka ,coined by his mother in a melding of Russian and English.

Nothing he does seems right. On a parents evening a teacher gushes to Gary’s father :

‘Gary is very smart. We hear he reads Dostoevsky in the original.’

‘Phh,’ Papa said ‘Only Chekhov’

Born in 1972 ,Gary and his parents emigrate to the USA in 1979 under Jimmy Carter’s exchange programme….the Soviet Union is given grain , after another crop failure, in exchange for exit visas for Soviet jews. They arrive at JFK via East Berlin and a stay in Italy :

Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Much of the humour and indeed pathos of the book comes from Gary and his family’s attempts to understand and adapt to American culture. Gary undergoes a circumcision,with a hole cut into the front of his underpants by his mother to prevent post-operative chafing. The family receive a letter telling them that they have won $10,000,000 …their dreams have come true! They dream of what they can now afford to buy, and to send back to the beleaguered family still left behind in the USSR. Gary’s parents then find out the brutal truth…it’s a scam :

In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies – wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets learn to sing The Internationale in honour of Brezhnev visit to local hay field – but we cannot imagine they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That.

Igor had been too sickly to go to school in Leningrad but Gary is soon enrolled in the Solomon Schlechter School of Queens where his lack of English and lack of understanding of American culture make it hard for him to integrate. He reflects on SSSQ, as it is known,after watching the ABC post-apocalyptic TV film The Day After  :

My research indicated that two of the Soviet missiles would target JFK and La Guardia airports in Queens. SSSQ is geographically equidistant from the two airports, and the school’s glass-heavy modernist structure would probably buckle and split into shards  from the initial blasts, burning up the siddur prayer books like so many blue pancakes, and certainly the subsequent radiation would kill everyone with the exception of the rotund, self -insulated Rabbi Sofer.

So far so good.

It is at SSSQ that a sympathetic teacher first discovers Gary’s talent for story-telling and at the end of each lesson he is asked to read from his Asimov-inspired space story The Chalenge [sic] which at last brings him some acceptance amongst his peers.

Gary’s childhood is over-shadowed too by his parents’ bitter arguments often over the relatives, some in the US ,some left in the USSR, and their dramatic threats of divorce. After making it into high achieving Stuyvesant , his parents have hopes of an Ivy League college and law school. He drifts however and we follow his journey through academic underachievement into  a minor liberal arts college via a dabbling with alcohol and drugs and some unsuccessful love affairs

Each chapter of the book charts a different phase in the author’s development and is prefaced with a photograph of him at that time. It is an entertaining look at growing up through the eyes of a classic outsider…..however there is a serious side to all this. A near breakdown propels Gary , at the insistence of a friend, into therapy. He is finally able to make a reacquaintance with the land of his birth and eventually to persuade his parents to come with him on a trip to St Petersburg. There they are each able to confront some of their demons. As Gary’s mum says:

I only really beat you up once……and I was so sad afterward. I guess that from the start I was an American mama.

This is a wonderful book full of humour , humanity and compassion.I haven’t read any of Shteyngarts’s novels but will definitely do so now.

Little Failure is a must read……

Book Review : Wake Up Happy Every Day

photoOf course, locations like Paris, New York and Rome feature regularly in literature. Bedford [UK] makes an appearance less often. Stephen May is originally from this sleepy county town and Bedford’s very ‘interesting’ bank-turned-pub, The Banker’s Draft, and its rather wonderful pizzeria, Sataniello’s, both make guest appearances in his third novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day.

This is a modern day morality tale and it’s fair to say that you have to suspend disbelief for the basic premise of the story to work.

Nicky has always been jealous of Russell, his old school friend from Bedford. Russell has made it big and lives a movie star existence in San Francisco.When Russell drops dead during a visit from Nicky and his wife, Sarah, they decide that Nicky can take on Russell’s identity…..and money.What ensues is a joyously comic romp through modern life, its contradictions and hypocrisy.

The story is told through the eyes of six seemingly unconnected characters all set on a collision course with each other. It’s hard to say much more without giving away the book’s surprises. Despite the fairy tale start to the story, each of the characters are themselves entirely believable and all give a different perspective on everyday dilemmas.

Along the way, May has sharp observations to make on Nicky’s previous jobs as a teacher and also as a lowly local authority bureaucrat :

‘ And you’ll want a key to the terminology: Outstanding means doing OK, while Developing means doing a bit shit. There’s an alternative language in place in local government but the key that unlocks it is a simple one. Nearly everything equals shit. Developing means shit. Challenging means shit. Problematic means utterly, impossibly, emphatically shit. Although Challenging and Problematic are generally words we reserve for the general public and their insane ways.’

On relationships between men and women :

‘ What are you thinking?’

Ah, Sarah is employing the four most loaded words you can have in a long-term relationship.

I counter them with the three most important.

‘It doesn’t matter.’

And even on studying Victorian women novelists :

‘Her days with minor Victorian women novelists are actually quite congenial. Like spending her time with a gang of eccentric, waspishly gossipy aunts. Mostly they take the genteel piss out of vicars while fantasising about getting off with the landed gentry. They’re quite modern really.’

So what is the moral ? Well, we none of us know how long we have and real happiness comes from the little things in life….most of all our children.

Nicky reflects :

‘Yes, fucking up often turns out to be the best thing long term. We should all of us be more relaxed about mistakes I think. Mistakes often save us from something worse. Often much, much worse.’

The tale is lightly and humorously told and is a really pleasurable feel-good read.

My thanks to Stephen May and Bloomsbury for the review copy.