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Last tango with Ernest
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, August 4, 2018 – Page P16

Bestselling author Paula McLain never intended to write about Hemingway, but became enthralled with the women who loved him. Her latest book tackles his tumultuous time with Martha Gellhorn. Critics may dismiss McLain's brand of historical fiction, but, as she tells Sarah Laing, 'honestly, how is Philip Roth doing anything different?'

There is a double double bind at the heart of Paula McLain's new novel, Love and Ruin (Bond Street Books). That's not a typo: For just as much as this is a tale about Martha Gellhorn, pioneering war correspondent and third wife of Ernest Hemingway, it's also a story of Paula McLain, bestselling author and unwitting medium to Ernest Hemingway.

Both are equally complicated, tempestuous and passionate entanglements.

"If you had told me at 20, or even 30, that Ernest Hemingway would change my life, I'd have said you were ridiculous," McLain says emphatically over an Americano at a Toronto cafe. "But he really has, and my relationship with him is this thing to navigate."

The 53-year-old, you see, never intended to write even one novel about the lionized American writer, let alone two. She'd read his works, "greats" such as For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, in college and been unmoved, and anyway, she was more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald woman, because he, in McLain's words, "was prettier and wrote better sentences."

But then, well into a career as a poet and memoirist, she reread A Moveable Feast and instantly became obsessed with Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife and the one he never quite got over. Something a bit like "voodoo magic" took over, and suddenly, she was writing historical fiction.

"It was like I was an actress and [Hadley] was the role of my life," recalls McLain, who, tall and elegant in widelegged pants and leopard-print heels, could pass for a studio head or bigdeal showrunner, if not quite a thespian herself. "I was inside her skull, looking out her eyeballs, and I just happened to be in Gertrude Stein's salon having tea with Alice B. Toklas."

Four million copies of The Paris Wife later, her life well and truly changed, McLain thought she was done with the pioneer of modernism and his circle.

Not because she'd fallen out of Hemingway's thrall by any means, but because she didn't want to be "that" writer who fixated on one particular seam of inspiration. She wrote another book - historical fiction again - based on the life of legendary aviatrix Beryl Markham, Circling The Sun, which was named a Best Book of 2015 by NPR.

And then McLain had a "freaky" dream.

It's a story she tells in her author's letter, one that also informs the book's cover. (When it was suggested that the artwork, which is strongly reminiscent of an iconic scene in The Notebook, might be a clever bit of Sparksassociative-marketing for the airport crowd, McLain denies she's read the book or seen the movie, but is all for some "subliminal" marketing).

In this dream, she is in a boat with Hemingway, magnetic as ever. She thinks they are alone until she turns and sees another woman there, a woman with "a glint silver-blond bob and the strong, self-possessed posture of a Modigliani" who she knew to be Martha Gellhorn.

She began to research this woman - an extraordinary character who covered six major conflicts and worked as a war correspondent into her 80s - and knew this had to be her next subject.

"Martha makes me feel very conservative and very tame," says McLain, who says she was "flabbergasted" she didn't know more about this trailblazing American woman. "She was a firecracker! She went to cover the Spanish Civil War at 28, she was the only journalist period on the beach at D-Day, and she spent the balance of the war travelling around with papers, lying to get across borders and landing up at Dachau concentration camp just as it was liberated."

Oh, as for why Gellhorn didn't have any papers to travel around as a journalist? Well, that's because her then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, had essentially "stolen" her credentials from Collier's, the outlet she was writing for, in an act of petty vengeance for what he perceived as her abandonment.

It's a betrayal that comes toward the end of their romance, and McLain's book, whose scope is the years of Gellhorn's life where it intersects with Hemingway, by then well on his way to become an American icon.

The pair - who began their affair while both covering the Spanish civil war and Hemingway was married to his second wife - were married for a rocky five years, many of them spent in Cuba, at the Finca Vigia, now a pilgrimage spot for Papa's faithful.

"I made a conscious effort not to read too far ahead," says McLain, who mined Gellhorn's personal correspondence and published work to unlock her personality, attitudes, even speech rhythms. "I really tried not be influenced about the way she wrote about Hemingway later in her life, blazing a hole of hatred in his direction. She really believed she never loved him and that he ruined her life, but we also have their letters to each other that are so grounded in passion and mutual admiration."

If there is a criticism to be levelled at McLain - and it has been - it is the narrowness of this scope, that out of all the episodes in the life of someone as extraordinary as Gellhorn, the focus must be on her relationship to a man ... even if he is one of the 20th century's most famous ones.

"He is the pivot point," McLain acknowledges when asked about the feminist credentials of writing two books now that tell the story of two women's lives through the lens of one significant romantic partner. "For me, I'm interested in human relationships, and why they are the battleground for us to work out who we are and what we are not. That's how we engage in self-making. We all have these Russian dolls inside ourselves, but for women in particular, who you are at 16 is not who you are 21, or 28, or 36. More and more, I'm only interested in how women discover who they are, and for me, relationships are one of those spheres of discovery."

Throughout this conversation, McLain ties and re-ties her blouse's pussy bow. It's not a nervous gesture, but something she seems to do when she's really considering her words. She does this now, this subject clearly being one that's captured her intellectual interest.

"Honestly, how is Philip Roth doing anything different? He just does it with more sex and degradation.

What's War and Peace about? That Tolstoy - obsessed with relationships!"

Later, she revisits the theme when asked if she feels like sometimes historical fiction can be dismissed a genre. She nods emphatically.

"It's like, 'Oh, so I'm writing bodice rippers?' There can't be something that's literary, emotionally and intellectually challenging? I don't want to apologize for the work that I do, and I'm very serious about it."

That said, she's the first to admit she's got a weakness for the pull of a cracking love story.

"Maybe I've always been interested in love relationships in particular? I remember when I read The Hobbit in Grade 7, and being so disappointed that they were heading off to Mordor and there were no girl hobbits."

The central tension in this novel is, in a way, related to that sort of stark separation of the domestic and the professional. It isn't a spoiler to say that Gellhorn's and Hemingway's relationship falls apart because she wants to have a career as something other than his third wife. Hemingway, for his part, both simultaneously encourages her as a writer and sabotages her work.

It's gas-lighting performed at a virtuoso level.

"We all have to survive certain people in our lives, and for Martha, Hemingway is one of those people. It's a double bind, because she needs to find her own identity that is so much larger than this relationship, but she keeps trying to have it all, to have this work out."

And that, in a way, is McLain's own double bind. She wanted to be free of Hemingway, but at the same time, his world has proved, for whatever reason, to be the most fertile for her imagination. In fact, while her portrait of Martha is vivid and engaging, it is the moments where she switches to Hemingway's perspective that McLain's writing begins to crackle and hum.

There are only a few of these breaks in POV scattered throughout the story, but they are the sections that stick with a reader longest, emotionally resonant in a way that's almost ... eerie.

And McLain kinda knows it.

"I write those in a fugue state," she confesses. They initially began as a writing exercise for The Paris Wife, when she was trying to get in Hemingway's head to understand some his crueler, more idiotic life choices. She felt that those were the passages that felt the most "embedded" and so they made it into the final draft. For this book, she realized she had gotten halfway through without popping into Hemingway's headspace.

"I felt like it was my last chance to really intersect with him. I've been to all his places, I've surfed along on his consciousness, so this was a moment for me to really dig in and be present.

It's my version of him, but it comes from a place of pure human understanding, trying to plumb the recesses of his inner life."

It was, in a way, a way of saying a proper goodbye to the man who did really change everything for her.

"I don't know how else to say it, but it was bittersweet. I was really conscious as I was writing those passages that this would be the last visitation."

McLain is in the early stages of her next project. Any possibility it could be about Pauline Pfeiffer or Mary Walsh, a.k.a. Hemingway wives two and four?

"Never ever ever ever. Then I really would be that lunatic writer!"

Associated Graphic

Paula McLain's book Love and Ruin is about Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.


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