Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree. It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously. I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away. Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).
Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons. Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today. The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque. Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.
The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years. It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence. In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational. In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.
I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway. Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1. In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:
|Elk Lake, 2011. I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996.
What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past. Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life. A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work. In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else. I’m not sure that I believe him, completely. Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145). I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts. When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.
This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends. I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later. It is in view of the Statue of Liberty, after all.
an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere. Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic. But alas. It is a holiday, after all.