Book review: Mrs Hemingway

By John Day

2 comments
It is a sign of Naomi Wood's skill that you'll never know for sure what she's invented. Photo / Hayley Madden
It is a sign of Naomi Wood's skill that you'll never know for sure what she's invented. Photo / Hayley Madden

The critic Edmund Wilson once called Ernest Hemingway "certainly the worst-invented character to be found in the author's work". Fifty-two years after his death, the Hemingway myth continues to both beguile and infuriate.

Recently, biographers have tried to get at the heart of the legend by telling his story through his relationships with the things and people he loved. Last year, Paul Hendrickson wrote Hemingway's Boat, a careful, evocative biography that focused on Hemingway's relationship with his fishing boat, Pilar. Now Naomi Wood's Mrs Hemingway offers a fictional portrait of Papa told through his four marriages, to Hadley Richardson, Pauline "Fife" Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Hemingway used to speak of the "iceberg" theory of fiction. Nine-tenths of any story, he said, should be kept out of sight, below the waterline, implied rather than presented.

Focusing on the women in his life, who have so often been overlooked, is a good way of telling the story, with Ernest himself the dark, unknowable iceberg.

This is a wonderful book: carefully written, richly imagined and emotionally wise. Scraps of dialogue from biographies and quotations from letters and telegrams are fused imaginatively to create a seamless narrative documenting the waxing and waning of Hemingway's affections, and the interior lives of those he loved.

Wood's Hemingway remains unknowable, but certain traits emerge. He is scared of loneliness and is "so good at being in love that" he "makes a rotten husband".

He is the centre of gravity, not just of the novel but of the lives he moves through. "What a pull he has!" reflects Fife as she is threatened by the advances of Martha Gellhorn, "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."

It is all meticulously researched, but, as in the best of Penelope Fitzgerald, the research is worn lightly and never threatens to dominate. Wood is in control at all times. She has trawled through the archives, read the letters, travelled to the locations: Antibes, Key West, Cuba.

You feel that the descriptions of the "slugs of gin" staining the pages of one of Hadley's letters to Fife, and the "scratch of mascara near the date" are based on first-hand knowledge, but it is a sign of Wood's skill that you'll never quite know for sure what she's invented.

Even the well-known details of Hemingway's life are made fresh, given a new significance. Somehow Wood's retelling of the myths - the story of his mother sending him the gun his father used to kill himself, hidden in a rotting cake ("mould furred the trigger that had last held his father's finger"); of Papa machine-gunning sharks, or liberating the Ritz in Paris at the end of the war - become more than mere facts, way points of a life to be navigated.

Facts in fiction, especially about historical characters, can be tricky and there are a few lapses, but they shouldn't bother any but the most pedantic. It is unlikely that Hemingway, a deep-sea fisherman, would have "dropped anchor" anywhere to fish. I don't think barnacles can be "soft", and Hadley performing a "bellyflop" in 1926 feels a bit anachronistic (it was a military term for a bad landing until the 1950s).

I can't work out how the description of a character's eyes as "like the twin holes of a rifle" would work either, unless Wood means the twin barrels of a shotgun.

Hemingway used to say that literature was produced by "inventing truly from honestly acquired knowledge, so that what you make up is truer than what you might remember".

Mrs Hemingway feels truer than most of the biographies, and more real than many novels.

Wood's method is an effective way of getting to grips with the central enigma: Hemingway himself, a man tortured by masculinity. But it is also a sensitive and moving evocation of those women he depended on, who his life often overshadowed.

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Picador $37.99, out next week).

- Daily Telegraph UK

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