Love and Ruin

LoveandRuin “We’d come all the way through the mine-filled Channel and now were sitting below the high yellow-green cliffs of Normandy surrounded by more ships than I had ever seen in my life or even knew existed. Thousands upon thousands of them made up the armada, massive destroyers and transport vessels and battleships. Small snub-nosed boats and cement barges and Ducks carried troops to the beaches, which were alive with pure chaos. Once they made the beach, there were two hundred yards or more of open ground to survive and then the cliffs. Overhead, the sky was a thick gray veil strung through with thousands of planes.”

There had never been anything like it, nor would there ever be.”  – Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain

I didn’t know that Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, was the only reporter with the Allied troops when they landed at Normandy on D-Day, and the only woman among 160,000 soldiers. At a time when female journalists were not permitted on the battlefield, Martha stowed away on a hospital ship the night before the landing. Ernest Hemingway and other male reporters tried their utmost to gain access to the battlefield that day; where they failed, Gellhorn succeeded magnificently. Her story has been beautifully re-created by Paula McLain in Love and Ruin.

I’m not typically a fan of fictionalized versions of real people’s lives, but I trust McLain because I’ve enjoyed her other novels: Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham, and The Paris Wife, which depicts Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley.

I’d assumed that by the time he met his third wife, Ernest Hemingway was well on his way to burning out, but that is not the case. Hemingway was at his peak and the most famous living writer in the world when he and Martha Gellhorn began a passionate love affair while he was married to his second wife, Pauline.

Martha Gellhorn was a ravishing beauty; she and Hemingway had a powerful mutual attraction. Martha had just published her first novel, and Hemingway mentored Martha to a degree unusual for male writers of his day. He encouraged her to dodge bullets, bombs, and mines with him as they covered the Spanish Civil War, Martha’s first immersion as a war correspondent. Hemingway has said that Gellhorn inspired him to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, which he dedicated to her. For a handful of years, Hemingway and Gellhorn enjoyed an extraordinary literary collaboration.

“….I loaded into a cement ambulance barge with a handful of doctors and medics, crashing through the surf around floating mines lit up by a flashing strobe. Soon I would know we’d landed on the American sector of Omaha Beach, but for the moment there was only horror and chaos. We bumped through severed limbs and the bloated forms of the drowned. Artillery fire shattered the air in every directions. Planes roared over us, so close my skull vibrated, but there wasn’t even time to wonder whose side they were on.”

I found Paula McLain’s depiction of Hemingway in Love and Ruin to be somewhat thin. For me, her rendering of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in The Paris Wife was far more emotionally compelling than that of Hemingway and Gellhorn, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Love and Ruin.

I think what interested Paula McLain (and me, too) is Martha’s larger-than-life risk-taking, how it matched Hemingway’s, and how their love for each other fueled their work. Ultimately, their relationship didn’t – and probably couldn’t – last, given Martha’s independent spirit and Hemingway’s sexism – he was a male of his time. Hemingway betrayed Martha terribly, in more ways than one, when she would not stay home by his side and have a child.

Near the beach, we flung ourselves out into the icy water and waded to shore. The surf came to my waist and tugged at my clothes. I stumbled, feeling chilled to my core, but I couldn’t be dragged down. I had to hold up my end of the stretcher and stay between the white-taped lines that marked the places that had been cleared of mines.

We picked up everyone, anyone, even Germans, and assembled them all on the beach for triage. They were young and scared and cold and hurt, and it didn’t really matter how they’d been wounded, or who they were before this precise moment of need. Every last one of them made me feel gutted, and there were hours of this. Blood-soaked bandages, flares sailing like red silk over the beach with a pop, tanks, and bodies. Men and more men. Men with boys’ faces. Boys spilling their lives into the tide….

It was the strangest and longest night of my life. Later I would learn that there were a hundred thousand men on that beach and only one woman, me. I was also the first journalist, male or female, to make it there and report back.”

After Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn continued to have a full, rich life. She wrote prolifically into her eighties, publishing novels, nonfiction, essays, and plays, and covered every major war during the second half of the twentieth century, including Viet Nam. Gellhorn, photojournalist Dickie Chapelle, and a handful of other brave women blazed a trail for the many more great female war correspondents to come.

Given that journalists are being called “enemies of the American people,” and many reporters are deeply concerned about the threats of violence they receive daily, I think it’s timely and fortunate that Paula McLain has celebrated Martha Gellhorn in her latest novel.

“The Women Who Covered Viet Nam”  is an excellent article written by war correspondent Elizabeth Becker, a good, short read if you’d like to know more about women reporters of that era. For a riveting story about a contemporary war correspondent who lost her life, read “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair. Town & Country recently featured an article about Martha Gellhorn written by Paula McLain, with great historical photos.  Goodreads has a list of memoirs by women journalists.

Here, Paula McLain talks about Love and Ruin at Mentor Public Library, a suburb of Cleveland (my hometown!) where McLain currently lives:

 

 

Here, she talks about poetry and inspiration:

 

 

Have you read Love and Ruin, or any of McLain’s other novels? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Packing for Paris

Books

I try to make my traveling adventures reading adventures, too. We’re headed to Paris to see our son, with a two-day stop in London, my first visit to both cities.

Then we’ll go to Metz, France for a couple of days, with a road trip to Luxembourg City. In World War II, my father fought in the battle of Metz, and we think we’ve figured out approximately where he was wounded (on November 14, 1944). So we’ll investigate and see what we find.

My father spent a weekend in Luxembourg City just before the battle and had an interesting story to tell about that, which I’ll share in an upcoming post.

Metz

Metz, France (Wikipedia)

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City (Wikipedia)

Besides Gertrude Stein, Irene Nemirovsky and our trusty travel guides, I’m bringing Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. (No books related to London because I won’t be able to contain myself in the bookstores.)

Tropic of Cancer book cover

One of the most banned books in history

A Movable Feast Book Cover

I’ll share my impressions, literary and otherwise, in upcoming posts.

Which books or authors would you recommend to a reader visiting France? Please comment!

Books Can Save a Life: most viewed posts in 2013

Snow-covered trees

Attractions in 2013

These are the Books Can Save a Life posts that got the most views in 2013.

I was gratified to see three of my most popular posts are about having a family member who suffers from mental illness. Early in the new year I’ll be writing about Susan Nathiel’s new book, Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent. There is still very little written about the experience of having a mother or father with a mental illness; Susan’s book is an important contribution.

If you want to be lifted up, read Kent Haruf

Benediction book coverShe looked at the two old brothers….

I want you to think about taking this girl in.

They stared at her.

You’re fooling, Harold said.

No, Maggie said. I am not.

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.    

                                                                             Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Yesterday I finished reading Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, about an elderly hardware store owner, Dad Lewis, dying of cancer.  I realized it was three years to the day since my father passed away from cancer. More than a coincidence, probably. I imagine something unconscious was at play. But I would have read this book eventually, no matter what, because I read everything Haruf writes.

My devotion to Haruf began when I read Plainsong, which he published in 1999. One of Haruf’s critics describes Haruf’s work as “exalted.” If you want to be exalted, get a copy of  Plainsong or Eventide or Benediction and drop into the lives of the folks who live on the dry plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Haruf writes about goodhearted people way off the beaten path trying to do the right thing. His prose is entrancing, deceptively simple, powerful. You may begin to be lulled by the humanity Haruf captures on the page, but before you get to feeling incredulous he hits you with some dark reality: bigotry, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, addiction.

I was surprised Haruf said in an interview one of the books that most influenced him as a writer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that underwhelmed me both times I read it. But in Haruf’s plain, spare prose I can see Hemingway’s legacy. And it reinforces my interest in how what we read speaks to us, personally. That’s going to be different for everyone.

Benediction is a beautiful book, but an especially quiet and somber one. If you want to sample a novel by Haruf, I suggest you begin with Plainsong, which has more action and a greater diversity of intriguing characters, followed by Eventide and then Benediction. All are set in Holt, in eastern Colorado. Plainsong and Eventide are companion novels that feature the same cast, while Benediction introduces a new set of characters. I suspect Haruf may continue their stories in a future novel.

In Benediction, an eighty-year-old woman, two sixty-year-old women, and an eight-year-old girl skinny-dip on a hot afternoon in a muddy water trough for cattle. Cool and refreshed, they lie down under a tree in their thin, sleeveless cotton dresses to take a nap. Somehow, Haruf makes this scene riveting. It is emblematic of his writing.

Two of my favorite characters in all of fiction are Plainsong’s rough-hewn cattle ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, who take in Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teenager. They are so sweet, and clueless to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is their visit to the ob-gyn with Victoria.

As much as I enjoyed Benediction, the McPheron brothers from Plainsong and Eventide will always be in my heart.

Plainsong book coverRaymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddam Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

Quotes from Plainsong, Kent Haruf. Vintage Books, New York: 1999.

BY KENT HARUF:

Plainsong

Eventide

Benediction

The Tie That Binds

Where You Once Belonged

Hemingway on life and death, love and war

I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead. Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing book coverWhen I visit a new place, I like to read the literature associated with that place or the literature created there. So when I went to Key West last month and the home of Ernest Hemingway, I reread The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway wrote there, followed by A Farewell to Arms. Last night I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time and went to bed feeling rather devastated.

In my last post I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises. When I read it the first time, in high school, I didn’t understand the novel. Decades later, I again found the characters tedious, which was Hemingway’s intention, but I at least better understood the context of those alienated, war-devastated years. His writing style, a breakthrough in Hemingway’s time, was for me so stilted and self-conscious it sometimes pulled me completely out of the story, and I especially disliked his sole female character, Lady Brett Ashley.

My post about Hemingway generated a handful of interesting and insightful comments, all by women and mostly about Hemingway’s ego and sexism and macho persona. I wish my blog attracted more male readers, but I have noticed some gender segregation in the book blog world, and I can understand that. I tend to gravitate toward female authors, and when I find I’m reading only books written by women, I’ll switch to a male author. Reading Junot Diaz, for example, was a stretch for me, but I’m glad I did. I had to talk myself into reading Hemingway again, too, but I’m glad I did that as well.

I felt uncomfortable after I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises, and I thought about that as I read Hemingway’s other novels. Because when all is said and done, I believe Hemingway is a master and, despite my personal reactions to it, I believe The Sun Also Rises is a great book. Visiting Hemingway’s home in Key West and looking at the many candid photos on every wall in every room, I sensed something of his spirit lingering. Reading The Paris Wife and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, I saw not just Hemingway the god-like, iconic writer but Hemingway the vulnerable artist.

I don’t do the close reading of a literary scholar or a book critic, though I admire those that do. On this blog, I don’t write book reviews, and I’ve been frustrated occasionally when I hear people say I do, although I understand why they wouldn’t make these distinctions. If you were to ask me to write a book synopsis or a book review, I’d have no enthusiasm for it. (And I’m a librarian.) Here, I want to share and talk about our own, highly individual reading journeys and our personal reactions to the books we read. I think if you’re an avid reader, books help to make you the person you are, and that’s going to make a difference in what you do and who you are out in the world.

(If you’re not an avid reader, maybe you love nature and have trekked across your country, or you know almost everything there is to know about the earliest jazz recordings, or you can recite from memory every baseball statistic ever recorded, or you’re devoted to helping the poor in Third World countries. You may be on some kind of personal journey of discovery that says something important about who you are and your place in the world. That journey of discovery is what I’m interested in.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls book coverHere are some of my personal reactions to Hemingway’s novels:

  • I disliked Lady Brett Ashley because she was self-centered and slept with every man who came her way (except for Jake Barnes). Then I realized the men in The Sun Also Rises were the same, yet I wasn’t as critical of them. I held the female to a different standard.
  • When I was young I accepted and enjoyed Hemingway’s fictional romances without question. I didn’t find them sexist or offensive until literary opinion told me I should, even though I came of age just after the feminist heyday. Now, while I don’t especially enjoy Hemingway’s portrayal of women, I have to say many women acted that way. I think Hemingway understood how we idealize the other in romantic love, and how we look to each other for rescue or at least a safe haven.
  • I have trouble understanding the American Robert Jordan’s  idealism and motivation for volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But when I think about the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m bothered that many of us are so emotionally removed from the reality of these wars and the sacrifices a small number of Americans are making. Since I’m not especially attracted to war novels, at first I didn’t take to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to follow Robert Jordan and the others on their mission to blow up the bridge. Of course, I became emotionally entangled in Robert’s relationship with Maria and the others. Hemingway fought and was nearly killed in World War I and reported from the front lines during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, so he understood war and he knew how to write about it. The last one hundred pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls contain some of the most beautiful, poignant and universally truthful passages I’ve ever read. With the final sentence, I do believe Hemingway achieved perfection.

BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY

A Moveable Feast

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Old Man and the Sea

A Farewell to Arms

The Sun Also Rises

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

In Our Time

The Garden of Eden

To Have and Have Not

Men Without Women

Islands in the Stream

Death in the Afternoon

Southernmost Beach Cafe interior

This Key West cafe is the southernmost restaurant in the US, 90 miles from Cuba. I’m sure Hemingway must have enjoyed a brandy (or two or three) here.

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