Hemingway: The Paris Years

by Michael Reynolds

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Hemingway: The Paris Years

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The story of Ernest Hemingway’s years in Paris has been told repeatedly. His own fiction and memoirs describe his sojourn in Paris, and many Hemingway friends, biographers, and critics have explored this seminal phase of the writer’s development. What distinguishes Michael Reynolds’ account here, as in the first volume of this ongoing biography, The Young Hemingway (1986), is the way he has steeped himself in this mass of primary and secondary sources while making fresh use of Hemingway’s unpublished writings. Especially valuable is the distinction he is able to make between the way Hemingway and his contemporaries felt then (in the mid-1920’s) and the way they recall the period in their memoirs.

Although the basic story is familiar, it still sparkles with Reynolds’ deft handling of characters and setting. Especially fine is his evocation of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. She was always there for Hemingway, warmly maternal, sexually appealing, and enormously patient with her moody, aggressive, and ambitious husband. As long as Hemingway was unsure of himself of exactly when he would make his breakthrough as an artist, Hadley was absolutely essential to his well-being. Recognized only in low-circulation European literary journals and among the Left Bank aesthetes, Hemingway was an obscure, pretentious upstart—sensitive about his apprenticeship under writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein and belligerent about being beholden to Ford Madox Ford, who employed him on the literary journal, transatlantic. Hadley’s quiet encouragement, her financial support (she had inherited money), and her willingness to do without—virtually every woman who met her remarked upon how badly dressed she seemed—guaranteed Hemingway an absolutely sympathetic atmosphere at precisely the time he most needed it.

Indeed, the handsome and vigorous Hemingway had an extraordinary band of backers. Sylvia Beach lent him money and books, introduced him to the most influential literary figures, and featured his first published books in her bookstore window. Ezra Pound put up with Hemingway’s uncalled-for attacks on his friend, T. S. Eliot, helped place Hemingway’s short stories in literary magazines, and generally played the role of the young writer’s booster, confidant, and partner—even agreeing to box with Hemingway when it was obvious that the winded poet’s forte was words not fisticuffs. At first, Robert McAlmon functioned in a similar position, but as a Hemingway contemporary (in age and in aspirations) he eventually became a bitter rival. Hemingway feared and loathed his competition and usually found a way of picking fights with men who in some way threatened him.

It may seem surprising that Hemingway had so few real enemies. As Reynolds shows, however, he was a man of wonderful charm and vitality. Men often felt energized around him, more masculine, and women more feminine—intrigued by this all-male specimen who so clearly needed a woman to help engineer his emergence as a great writer. Gertrude Stein, for example, could not resist a man who treated her so completely as an authority on writing. When it came to the question of developing an honest style, his entreaties to her for help suggested a moral nature that ennobled the profession of writing.

Another source of Hemingway’s appeal was his consummate ability as a performer. Every aspect of his life became a drama. Although he wanted to capture the truth of things in writing, this was not the same as adhering to the facts. Indeed, Reynolds suggests that “whenever Hemingway put words on paper, he was creating fiction.” He had a way of making himself the center of the action, writing about “himself in the act of being a reporter,” Reynolds remarks. With Hemingway, Reynolds concludes, there was no such...

(This entire section contains 1628 words.)

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thing as nonfiction, only “degrees of fiction.” Rather than being outraged as some biographers are by their subjects’ prevarications, Reynolds sees Hemingway’s lies as integral to his very notion of himself as a writer. It was the writing, the fictionalizing, that made him Hemingway.

Reynolds is frequently astute in his explanations of why Hemingway lied. For example, Hemingway claimed early in his career that writing was excruciating for him when, in fact, many of his stories came easily and rapidly to him. The young Hemingway took James Joyce as his model of the writer, and Joyce was legendary for his painstaking way with words. It would be bad form for Hemingway to admit the speed with which he sometimes composed or to confess that he had spent an apprenticeship of nearly seven years waiting to write the great stories that suddenly came to him in three- to six-month spurts of extraordinary fluency. Instead, Hemingway believed that he had to groom himself and his audience. He must play the figure of the writer. He was a great reader of literary biographies, and there is no question that his public persona was a carefully managed one.

As badly as Hemingway wanted to be a writer, there was another part of himself that was resistant. His childhood hero had been Theodore Roosevelt, a man of action. There was something less than masculine about being a writer. It obviously disturbed Hemingway that some writers, such as McAlmon, were homosexual or bisexual. To Hemingway, such an orientation was passive, and Paris itself was a haven for the effete, for the pretenders who talked a good line but rarely produced or acted upon their convictions. Hemingway would often lash out at the prevailing fashion if only to prove to himself that he was still his own man. In many ways, he remained a Midwestern, Oak Park boy, distrustful of bohemians, and only gradually did he let his hair grow long and adopt the casual clothing and unkempt appearance of his Parisian confreres.

While not slighting the outward facts of Hemingway’s life—showing how he lived, providing vivid descriptions of his friends and the places where he traveled—Reynolds argues that Hemingway lived most intensely in his fiction. There is no way for the biographer actually to relive his subject’s experiences, especially ones as private and intimate as the writing of stories and books, but Reynolds tries to approximate what Hemingway felt when writing by portraying him watching his characters, observing a Nick Adams as he fishes, yearning to return to Adams each day to find out what his character will do next. The trouble is that Reynolds can present this notion of being present with the writer as only a notion, saying, for example, that Hemingway’s claim to Pound that he had visited Vincent van Gogh’s whorehouse in Provence “was true in a way, for he had been to the whorehouse in his mind.”

The best way to get a feel for what was going on in Hemingway’s mind is to study his letters and manuscripts—which Reynolds has done to great advantage, showing how Hemingway evolved his conception of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, starting with a rather literary figure who metamorphosed into a much more taciturn if still literate man, at home in French and in European civilization in a way that Hemingway himself was never quite able to match. Nick Adams had also started out as a writer figure, but Gertrude Stein convinced Hemingway that Nick’s discursiveness detracted from the dramatic action; “remarks are not literature,” she told her apprentice.

For a long time Hemingway had dreaded starting a novel. He did not see how he could sustain a work of such length without it seeming artificial and forced. He apparently changed his mind when he discovered in Barnes a focal character who could register the impressions of a circle of friends and of an age, as Nick Carraway had done in The Great Gatsby. Hemingway’s friendship with F Scott Fitzgerald, begun at a time when Fitzgerald was at the height of his power and fame, was a stroke of fortune, for Fitzgerald sought Hemingway out and confirmed the course his career was taking.

It is a great virtue of Reynolds’ biography that it so clearly depicts the relationship between these two writers, the excitable Fitzgerald egging Hemingway on even as Hemingway is taking Fitzgerald’s measure, realizing that his successful friend does not know how to husband his own talent. Extremely careful in the way he picked his women, Hemingway could see that Zelda Fitzgerald only exacerbated Scott’s tendency to dissipate his energies in drink and in heavy socializing. Hemingway’s great gift was to cultivate the friends he needed while ruthlessly cutting himself off from others. His women understood this, and Reynolds is wise to end his book on the point of Hemingway’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. Again, the biographer makes the reader see what Hemingway saw and sets the stage for the next phase of his subject’s life before it has quite emerged, before Hemingway has quite admitted to the change in his feelings:Pauline was small, like a bird, with nice eyes and delicate moves. When he was not lost in his hook, Ernest began to notice her the way a man does without knowing it. There was much to notice in so small a version of the Twenties woman: trim, narrow-hipped, bobbed hair cropped close like a helmet, and small breasts that moved beneath her blouse. Compared to Pauline, Hadley was a matron whose ample hips and full breasts remained a strong attraction for Ernest. All along Montparnasse one could see ’new women” like Pauline, the Twenties version of beauty. Radley was the prewar woman, built for bearing children.

The changing times and Hemingway’s career coalesce in such passages, which provide a great feeling of anticipation not only for what will happen next in Hemingway’s life but for how Reynolds will handle it in his next volume.


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Kirkus Reviews. LVII, September 15, 1989, p.1389.

Library Journal. CXIV, November 15, 1989, p.86.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, January 7, 1990, p.19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, October 13, 1989, p.34.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 2, 1990, p.108.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 24, 1989, p.1.