There are some obvious ways in which Hemingway and I differ:
He was male; I’m female
He’s dead; I’m alive
He was one of the greatest writers who ever lived; I’m a writer.
But then there are some not-so-obvious ways in which we differ, too, and I discovered those while reading The Paris Wife by Paula McClain last week (which I loved). For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s told from the POV of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Kristan Hoffman wrote two posts that will make you want to read it. But I don’t want to discuss the book. I want to discuss Hemingway and all the ways we differ.
I lived in Paris during my late teens/early 20s, and I read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s autobiography about his years there, during that time. The only scene I remember from A Moveable Feast was one in which Hemingway discreetly bends over while sitting on a park bench to break the neck of a pigeon, so he can take it home for his wife to cook for dinner. They were that poor.
But A Paris Wife paints a very different picture. Although McClain acknowledges that the Hemingways lived a modest lifestyle in comparison to some of their wealthy friends, like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, that modest income was comparable to about $40,000 in today’s dollars, which went a LONG way in France in 1925, when one dollar could buy 22 francs, and their cleaning woman, Marie Cocotte, charged 2 francs per hour. That means for $.09/hour, or $1.17 in today’s dollars, Marie Cocotte not only did their dishes and prepared their meals every morning but came back most afternoons to prepare their dinners as well.
When Bumby, the Hemingways’ first child, was born, Marie Cocotte frequently took care of him, often staying late into the night and sometimes spending weeks at a time with him in Paris, in the South of France or in Brittany while the Hemingways were off skiing in the Alps or watching the fiesta in Pamplona. I can’t help but think how much writing I could get done if I, too, had a cleaning woman/nanny taking care of my children and cooking me gourmet French meals for $1.17 an hour. Sure, I’d have to put up with cold showers, a lack of heat, and stinky squat toilets down the hall from my tiny apartment. It would be a lot like the trip I took to India in the 90s, only without the giardia and other intestinal parasites that left me writhing in pain every week or two. But wouldn’t it be worth it to finally write that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? (If only the Pulitzer board were still giving out prizes for novels.) To finally win that Nobel prize?
Now that Europe is more expensive than the United States, I’m thinking Honduras might be the place, or Bali. We could start a new ex-pat generation without all the absinthe and bullfights. A few smoothies, a little yoga, and I’m sure plenty of drama would ensue. Who’s in? I’ll meet you on the beach at sunset, where I’ll be working on my next novel: The Sun Also Sets.