I enjoy reading biographies because every life tells a good story. But, lately, I’ve been exploring the novelizations of real people. The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain, imagines the courtship and five-year marriage of Ernest Hemingway and the first of his four wives, Hadley Richardson. Told from Hadley’s point of view, the novel creates a vivid picture of the tenderness and toughness of two souls looking for love and companionship.
They marry after a courtship conducted mainly by correspondence, and move to Paris in 1921. He struggles with his writing and she is, at first, content to support, encourage, and cheer him on. Paris goes from dreary with rain and a cold, cramped apartment to exhilarating with friendships of talented and influential people — Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. Ernest remembered these years, late in life, in his sketches in A Moveable Feast. He wrote, “Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Ernest and Hadley take in the bullfights in Spain, spend weeks in winter skiing in the mountain of Austria, sunbathe on the beach of the French Riviera. The Hemingways travel with friends, have dinner and drinks with friends at small bistros, commenting and arguing about relationships, art, writing, and life. A lot of drinks are consumed. All of this was raw material for Hemingway’s breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises. As he spent solitary time writing, Hadley found friendship and company with socialite Pauline Pfieffer. Glamorous, well-read, pretty Pauline and Ernest caught each other’s eye. Devastated, Hadley, unglamorous but loyal and true, fought to save her marriage, but it was doomed.
McLain’s skill and imagination transported me to past times and scenes and took me inside Hadley’s head, and my imagination embellished from there. The novelization of real people is a way to experience history and empathize with a person from the past. The novelist starts with the facts of a person’s life and adds flesh and nerves to the bone, thoughts and feelings to the mind and heart. I like that it’s a way to not only learn about someone, but to learn lessons from his or her life, triumphs as well as mistakes.
Another recent novelization that I enjoyed was The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, about Anne and Charles Lindbergh. The novel takes a realistic look at a “fairytale” marriage, and conveys the exhilaration of the early days of aviation. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler is another entry in this field of books. We know plenty about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point of view, but what about Zelda’s? Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel by Nancy Horan, tells of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson’s long-time love affair with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne.
What would a novelization of your life be like? Who would you want to write it? Would you want to read it?