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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Mrs Hemingway

Posted: 31 May 2014 04:00 PM PDT

Who were the women that the great writer married and left? This brilliant work of fiction steeped in fact attempts to bring them into the spotlight.

FOR most book lovers, the name Ernest Hemingway would evoke the image of a great American writer whose work reflected both his personal life as well as the social events of the time (A Farewell To Arms was based on Hemingway's experience on the Italian front lines during World War I).

While Hemingway's life seems like an open book, the same can't be said about the lives of his four wives. Mixing fiction with meticulously researched facts, author Naomi Wood explores the lives of Hemingway's four wives in Mrs Hemingway.

The novel is, logically, split into four sections, one for each of the Mrs Hemingways.

Starting with Hadley (the woman celebrated in Hemingway's acclaimed A Moveable Feast), the novel opens in 1926, with Hemingway and his first wife Elizabeth Hadley Richardson – referred throughout as Hadley – living in the French resort city of Antibes.

In a rather bizarre menage-a-trois, Hemingway's lover – and Hadley's best friend – Pauline Pfeiffer (also known as Fife) lives with them. Through the opening chapters, readers get a feel of the unique set up of the relationship, with sexual tension, despair, hurt, simmering hatred and indifference threatening to tear all three – and in particular Hadley – apart.

The quiet and slow pace of the novel allows Wood to build the tension, anger and hurt that Hadley feels towards her husband's behaviour, which includes public canoodling with her best friend. This is the recurrent theme throughout the novel, that despite each of the women believing she has tamed Hemingway, the writer remains as restless as ever, not wanting to be pinned down to any one place or woman.

Fife is seen as the more outspoken and opinionated wife of Hemingway's wives. However, despite having a voice and not being afraid to use it, Fife is far from being at peace with Hemingway.

During her marriage, the Spanish Civil War erupts and Hemingway went to Spain to cover it for American newspapers. She may have had the riches and the luxury, but it was impossible for Fife to compete with a war for her husband's attention.

For Martha Gellhorn, the third Hemingway spouse, being married to Ernest was something she came to hate. Martha's hatred of being Mrs Hemingway could stem from the fact that before she embarked on an affair and eventually into married life with Ernest from 1940-1945, she was a journalist, a career woman in her own right. However, in the sexist manner of the time, after marrying Ernest, her own career ceased to exist and she just became Mrs Hemingway, wife of a celebrated writer.

Mary Welsh, the last Mrs Hemingway, was also a journalist who succumbed to Ernest's charms. And like the women who preceded her, Mary was unable to keep Hemingway's restless nature captivated.

While it may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, Wood blatantly paints Mary and Ernest as two volatile people, with Mary standing firm against her husband. Like all the wives before her, Mary is left wondering why Ernest decided to walk down the aisle with her.

Wood provides her own answer, in a single paragraph: "When Ernest was good he was entrancing, but when he was on the sauce he could be vile. She wondered, too, what might be her purpose here. Manage the staff? Go fishing and shooting with Ernest? No longer would she be a correspondent with her own stories and salary."

Though the novel spans almost 40 years, it is extremely easy to read. Each of the four sections provides space for each Hemingway wife to air her thoughts and feelings, which makes Mrs Hemingway read more like four novellas rather than one book.

Wood uses flashbacks effectively to illustrate just how happy each of the four women were with Hemingway.

While little hints about Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary's disillusionment about being Mrs Hemingway are scattered throughout the novel, Wood does not try to sneak in her own opinions to explain their disappointments.

All four women are equally drawn and repulsed by Hemingway, leaving each of them in a grey area, and Wood does not attempt to erase this shade of grey. This gives Mrs Hemingway a very realistic tone, with airs of tension, sadness, regret and anger filling the pages.

Mrs Hemingway may be a work of fiction that is steeped in fact, but the undertow is a study of a complex man as seen by four equally complex women who, despite knowing his flaws, were still attracted to him and remained steadfastly loyal (for as long as humanly possible) to a man they knew they could never tame.

Though the focus is on his wives, fans of Hemingway will be very pleasantly surprised with Wood's Mrs Hemingway. A brilliant read.

Related article: 'Mrs Hemingway' explores pain and passion of writer's four wives


Posted: 31 May 2014 04:00 PM PDT

Over the past few months I've noticed that an increasing number of the books I review in this column are translations. This is partially due to my own unappeasable curiosity about the rich and varied stories of the diverse inhabitants of this planet, but also because high quality translations are increasingly available.

I put this down to the fact that in this interconnected world publishers have easy access to sales figures for books published in other languages and other lands. It's a low-risk calculation for them to bank on what has been a bestseller in one country becoming a bestseller in another.

For example, here in Malaysia we see publishers like Fixi Verso translating bestselling books from safe-bet writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman into the national language, but globally we see an increasing number of translations from "foreign" languages into English.

Mai Jia, whose real name is Jiang Benhuis, as the blurb on the inside cover informs the reader, is possibly one of the most famous novelists you've never heard of. His books sell millions in his native China where they have been adapted into films and television series, but he is almost unknown outside his home country.

Some people refer to him as the Chinese Dan Brown – presumably the comparison is made on the basis of his sales, because his writing is much richer and nuanced and more literary in style. Mai Jia himself prefers to compare his writing to a blend of Kafka and Agatha Christie, which might or might not give the reader some sort of an idea what to expect.

Decoded is Mai Jia's first novel. Olivia Milburn has made a splendid and very readable translation. Originally published in China in 2005, it is Mai Jia's first book to be available in English.

A precocious youth, Mai Jia was only 17 when he joined a top-secret section of the People's Liberation Army, and in one of the uncanny symmetries of life, he stayed in the PLA for another 17 years. Much of the inspiration for his books comes from that period spent in the intelligence community.

Decoded is the story of a slightly autistic but brilliant young mathematical autodidact named Rong who, just like Mai Jia, gets recruited into a top secret section of the People's Liberation Army at a young age. Set in a period before number crunching computers, Rong's task is to crack codes. He dedicates himself single-mindedly to the task, performing his duty to the country, forsaking his original intention, which was to work with his mentor on the development of artificial intelligence.

The book starts off very spiritedly with some genealogical back story on Rong's ancestors, who are personable and charismatic characters that one would happily read about, but as soon as the story gets to Rong the author pulls back.

Apart from a very brief section near the end we only ever see Rong from a distance. Rong is so introverted that he is capable of going months, and sometimes years, without saying a word to another human being.

The story is told as if it was a piece of investigative journalism, where the narrator is trying to find out all he can about this mysterious character. The protagonist is only ever seen through other's eyes and the narrator learns about him second hand, except for one brief encounter much later in Rong's life. There are times that this journalistic effect is so real that the reader starts to wonder if this really is a novel or whether it is actually an authentic biography.

Decoded is an intelligent book that deftly skirts around the history of the time. Though literary, Mai Jia is a mainstream author, and studiously avoids getting bogged down in anything resembling politics. There is a moment early on where the reader might worry about getting bored with the mathematical elements of the story, but these are just used to establish character and are very quickly left behind to focus on the story in itself.

With Rong being so distant and hermetic it is difficult to truly empathise with him as a character. Perhaps the author's intention is for the reader to mirror Rong's own anti-social belligerence. Ultimately, it is the writing that keeps one reading and Mai Jia is very astute in his exploration of the fragility of genius.

Given his commercial viability, doubtlessly more of Mai Jia's work will be translated in the future. I will certainly be looking forward to read more from him.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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