Finished The Paris Wife on my plane ride home and found it intriguing to get a more intimate portrait of Hemingway and the ex-pats over in Paris in the ’20’s. Hemingway’s macho gun-toting heavy-drinking exterior and his actual writing have never done much for me and still don’t. But stories of people driven by their art and committed to honing their craft are more and more intriguing and both were certainly true of him. Like Carl Orff and Gary Snyder, he had four wives, most of them overlapping (the above book is about his first and soon-to-be second wife). He lived in interesting places, most of which I’ve been to— upper Michigan, Toronto, Chicago, Paris, Key West (saw his house there), Cuba (saw his house there) and then Idaho (haven’t been there) and spent lots of time in Spain (me, too).
I’m always intrigued by the gathering of artists and find it particularly interesting that writers, usually working in solitude, have always sought out each other’s company and formed little communities— Hemingway’s crowd in Paris (Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more) the Algonquin Round Table in New York, the Beat Poets in San Francisco, And often there is a mixture of artists— throw in Picasso and Stravinsky and Josephine Baker and things get even more interesting. All these people stretching the bounds of convention (these 20’s women more “liberated” than their 50’s American counterparts) getting together to create their own conventions, which back then meant parties, parties, parties, and lots and lots of drinking, drinking and more drinking. Reading about it, you wonder when they ever worked! But work they did and the work they left us was important enough that we care to read about their drinking parties.
Yesterday I bought Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his last work digging back into that time in the 20’s in Paris. I’ll give him one last chance to interest me as a writer and am intrigued to hear the story from his point of view. Meanwhile, I did the Wiki-bio of the man to corraborate some of the facts and was struck by all he suffered. I always have this romantic notion of the successful artist leading the charmed life and really, who knows where I got that strange idea from. Just like at the facts— Bach goes blind, Beethoven goes deaf, Schumann ruins his fingers with a weird contraption and goes crazy, Chopin and poet Rilke in poor health their whole life, Scott Jopin’s opera fails and he ends in a mental institution, Cole Porter is crippled in a car accident, Gershwin dies young of a brain tumor. Well, it’s a long list and I’m just getting warmed-up— drinking, drugs, failed relationships, disease, insanity, suicide. No wonder people are so averse to arts in the school! Keep your kids away from it!!
Hemingway was severely wounded as a young ambulance driver in Italy, got in two car accidents and two plane crashes, his father, sister and brother all committed suicide, he went to the Mayo clinic for depression and got electro-shock therapy and finally committed suicide himself at 62 years old. My age.
My health (knock on wood) is hearty at the moment, my drinking limited to a half a bottle of beer a day (corked up for the next), my tragedies of relatively small proportion— like finding my window smashed in my parked car and my backpack gone filled with Xerox sheers of classical music (a cultured thief!). But I have been heartily knocked off the horse of my notion that life improves in ascending measurable curves, that one’s reputation is solid and untouchable, that one’s achievements are universally appreciated, that one’s relationships are dependable and filled with honest communication, that each day, each month, each year, moves delightfully from one moveable feast to another.
Let’s face it, I’m in it up to my neck like the rest of us and the "feast" is sometimes stale potato chips and moldy white bread. While we think we can craft the world we want to be with vision, love and patience, mostly we’re just trying to survive any way we can. We talk about being open, but we carry our portable fortress with us at all times to protect us from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And mostly we wear it daily. It just hurts too damn much to put it down and meet life bare-chested.
Well, I guess it’s time to get that car window fixed. Hope some thief somewhere is enjoying playing Schumann's Arabesque.