For some reason, there have been, in recent years, a significant number of novels that focus on the romantic lives of poets and novelists. Not only do these books try to capture, historical fiction-style, the ups and the downs of these writers’ romantic lives, they also try to analyse the echoes of these peaks and troughs in their famous works.
Leading the pack here is Black Venus by James McManus. McManus is the managing director of The Times Literary Supplement and is hence no stranger to literary anecdotes. Black Venus is about Baudelaire, that prince among doomed poets, and his “tempestuous romance with his muse Jeanne Duval”. The most impressive achievement of this novel is the casual, fly-on-the-wall tone it maintains without slipping into flat-out gossipy pulp; an easy mistake to make when you are confronted with Paris, a city bursting at the seams with writers, artists and musicians. Here’s a representative passage:
“Balzac had already made a fortune and Dumas was well on the way to doing likewise. New and faster printing presses and the rise of literacy were helping writers become rich. Those artists might enjoy the bohemian pleasures of Paris and affect indifference to everything except their art, but to many of the true bohemians they seemed as greedy as the bankers they chose to despise. Eugene Delacroix would be there that night, as usual taking wine and a little hashish with Balzac and Dumas.”
Historical forces often conspire to keep subversive writers out of the public eye. Women writers have often found themselves at the receiving end of such treatments, leaving feminist scholars to “retrieve” their contributions to culture; MacManus embarks on a similar mission of retrieval and explains just why Baudelaire was overlooked in his own lifetime.
Historical forces often conspire to keep subversive writers out of the public eye. Women writers have often found themselves at the receiving end of such treatments, leaving feminist scholars to “retrieve” their contributions to culture; MacManus embarks on a similar mission of retrieval and explains just why Baudelaire was overlooked in his own lifetime (and we’re not just talking about the obscenity trial here).
In Naomi Wood’s Hemingway’s Wives, this “retrieval” has another agenda: to strip down the layers of mystique around Ernest Hemingway, who is only recently being called out for his subliminal misogyny. The much-married Hemingway’s caddish side is explored with almost journalistic detachment. The women in his life are mere footnotes no more. Wood details how journalist Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, became sick of being introduced as Mrs Hemingway. Gellhorn is now considered one of the most important war correspondents of all time, but for a long time, biographers and historians, while writing about her, focused only on her marriage to Hemingway. Through the novel, Wood tells us a little about how this came to be.
Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl (which focuses on the romantic life of George Eliot) is a metafictional spin on the same problem: how do you maintain the aura, the “distance” between the writer and the reader when you are, on the other hand, also engaged in humanising the writer by detailing her romantic follies? The answer, as Duncker mentions in the afterword, is to include the reader in a ringside view of things, to give her a taste of what it feels like to see yourself becoming fictionalised. In Sophie and the Sibyl, there are several characters who we know from Eliot’s landmark novel Daniel Deronda. In a fascinating spin, we see Sophie becoming a character in Daniel Deronda as well (spoiler alert: she doesn’t take it well).
What Duncker is saying is that when you engage with a writer, you’re fair game for being turned into a fictional version of yourself; and who knows, people might find your alter-ego to be more fun. She writes, in the opening chapter itself: “History readily translated itself into myth; but this did not mean that these fabulous tales were therefore less accurate or revealing.”
David Park’s The Poet’s Wives is a beguiling addition to this list. Park, a la Michael Cunningham, tells us three stories that echo each other: William Blake’s wife Catherine, Osip Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda and the wife of a fictional Irish poet. Park is a bit of an old-fashioned moralist, and his book asks the sort of tough questions that more people ought to ask of writers. In the first section of the book, we meet Mrs Blake, who is heavily dependent on her husband, perhaps the most lopsided of the three relationships in the book. This is a woman who was taught how to read and write by her husband, so in effect, she is a literary blank slate. It is therefore quite significant that she raises a profoundly moral question about her husband’s writing. What was the point of “literary” grieving, she asks. “If it were true why the need to put it in a book? Why the need to give it to anyone other than his son?”
In the same book, the third and final section is perhaps the one that sheds the most light on the matter of writers as spouses. Here, we meet the wife of a late (fictional) Irish poet. In public, she is every bit the mourning wife. She does not say anything critical of her husband. But in private, she grieves more for her missing son (about whom her husband had always been lackadaisical, to the extent that he did not make much of an effort to find out what happened to him) than the man revered by so many.
Which is not to say that all real life writers tend to make a mess of their marriages; indeed, there are so many brilliant writer couples today. Zadie Smith and Nick Laird, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, James Wood and Claire Messud: these are all remarkable and to an extent, eccentric people who have found a way to make marriage work. Perhaps, one of these days there will be a happy book about a writer’s marriage, full of creative thank you notes and bedtime reading.