Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Paris Wife

Paris, 1926. Nothing was more modern.
Twenty years ago this spring I was introduced to the soundtrack for the Alan Rudolph film The Moderns. The soundtrack first, not the film. I was couch-living in the apartment of two friends in Los Angeles. One old friend, and one new. The new friend was an aspiring film composer, his CD and cassette collection was overrun with film scores. The Moderns score was composed by Mark Isham (Romeo Is Bleeding, Quiz Show) and features original compositions and a few tracks from the period.

The music is jazz, some played on piano and sung by Charlelie Couture and there are lush, yearning themes, some based on period melodies.  There are twos version of Parlez Moi D’amour (Speak to Me of Love) both “retro” and “moderne”.

I had no reason to be in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1991, except that I had friends there and thought I was supposed to go somewhere.  I couldn’t stay in Athens (well, I could have) and I couldn’t go home (well, I could have) and I had no imagination of my own so I went where my pals were, on the edge of America.

For two months I slacked. It should have been a vacation, a playground. And I tried to make it one, we shot amateur video, I wrote and recorded a few songs, tried to create a new comic strip (always, always trying to create a new comic strip.)  I read novels, I kept fit, I did not smoke, drank little, tried to do the beach thing, tried to do the bar thing … always wearing the wrong clothes, with the wrong hair.  I wrote desperate postcards to my estranged girlfriend back home.  And I listened to music, all the time.  No TV. Only music.

The sound of The Moderns soundtrack was mournfully romantic to me.  It made me want to go to there, and I didn’t even know where there was. I knew nothing of the 1920s, not really, and certainly not expatriate Americans in Paris.  I expressed my interest in renting the movie. My friends said that would be a bad idea.

Finally, the night before I was to head home for a conjugal visit with my ex, the guys thought I may be able to deal with it.  And I didn’t like it, the movie.  I had created something else in my head, a different picture that the film could not live up to.  It seemed too flat to me, too silly.

But I was wrong. I watched it again, a month later, after I had returned home to Cleveland in June 1991.  And I saw that it was not silly, it was funny.  A cartoon of 20s Paris, or a caricature like the kind the Keith Carradine character draws.  That’s not Hemingway, that’s an idea of Hemingway, of Gertrude Stein.  When I hear descriptions of the Paris as reflected in the new Woody Allen movie I think, that that is also supposed to be Owen Wilson’s character’s idealized version of Paris and not the place itself, I think, well, I’ve seen that already.

And once I accepted The Moderns on its own terms, the more it sunk into my heart. The longing, the painting, the smoking, the drinking.  We risk everything, for love and for art, don’t we?

Only I don’t.  I never have. I have only risked everything for love, and never for art.  I was also reading Tom Robbin’s new novel, Skinny Legs and All at that time.  Art and love. And sex. But never art without love, never sex without love, not for me.  I risked everything I had, once, for love.  Thank God I was right.

In the coldest snap of early 1995, I was holed up with my lover in New York for a week.  The divorce would not be finalized until later that year.  We were both sniffly and a little feverish, but we got out as often as possible, to see everything, to do everything.  We saw Rudolph’s new picture, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Soundtrack again by Isham. Same period (more or less) only now New York and not Paris.  Now, writing, instead of painting.  More drinking, more smoking.  Great hats.  Everyone is so fucking witty.

I love that movie, too.  I had a foolish fantasy once upon a time of creating that kind of fascinating life here in Cleveland.  We would have salons and write great novels and plays and created fabulous portraits of each other and so beautiful places and be beautiful people.  Only that’s ridiculous.  There is nothing glamorous about Cleveland, beautiful, sure, but not fabulous.  Important and true and honest and angry and warm and eternally hopeful, that is Cleveland.  I quickly abandoned such pretensions and chose instead in my advanced 20s to concentrate and who we are, in reality. And on, with eternal hopefulness, to be happy.  To have love.

Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, if you were not already aware, is about Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson.  And putting her in the center of a novel about that time in that pace is itself a challenge, and also so ideal.  Who is Hadley?  She didn’t write anything, or paint anything, she drank as much as most but not as much as some, she promoted her husband’s work and was honest and devoted and had his first child (you know, that we know of) and was there, always there, for him, even if not anywhere to be found in the pages of In Our Time.

The Hemingway of The Moderns is a hilarious supporting character.  He’s young and giving to outbursts of pique but mostly broods drunkenly at the periphery.  He does not have a wife, or even a girlfriend, because that factual picture does not fit the monument he created for himself in his work.

Hadley’s sole (obvious) artistic endeavor is her talent with the piano, but a scheduled recital is abruptly cancelled when her relationship with Hemingway begins to unravel. (Did I neglect to provide a spoiler alert? We know Hemingway’s first marriage ended, right, that’s why it’s called that.) Because some people cannot perform when they hurt. People like me.

I am Hadley Richardson.

The Paris Wife came to me at just the right time. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it, or the protagonist, twenty years ago, though maybe that is a shame.  I believed The Moderns when I was young, the idealized version of art and love, which makes love look like a game, and that love is an inspiration and the art will pour out of you into the universe. This novel reflects the hard fact that love and trust and acceptance are to me as necessary as food or air, without which I cannot work. And that art is work, that art never pours freely from any orifice, that it must be forced out, and wrought.  Life is work, and love is work, and art is work.

And if you are good at your work, then you may be happy.

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