I’ve just finished watching season 2 of The Affair, a smart drama about the impact of an adulterous relationship between a teacher with a promising writing career and a waitress unravelling with grief following the death of her son.
It’s solidly scripted and brilliantly acted, with plenty of good set pieces, but the most interesting and unique thing about the show is that events are told and re-told from the point of view of four lead characters.
We get access to their inner lives, and as viewers we pinball between their different versions of events and are left to make our own judgement on whose perspective rings truest.
It put me in mind of two of my favourite 20th century American novels, both lightly fictionalised versions of true events written by swaggering male writers.
Both are now part of the literary canon and both were subject to re-tellings: one a factual account of events from a real wife who appeared as a prominent character in the novel; the other a fictionalised narrative version of a wife’s experiences, giving voice to an otherwise mute but real life character.
In both cases it took decades to redress the balance. And in both cases the follow up book from a woman’s perspective is an antidote to the original books at their worst while at best shedding light on the real life circumstances of their creation.
First, there’s On the Road by Jack Kerouac, the book that became the bible of the ‘Beat Generation’. It’s packed with high-energy road trips and hitch hiking adventures, back and forth across America and down into Mexico, laced with beer, grass, jazz, sex and poetry, and written in a breathless spontaneous prose style.
And nearly 40 years later came its counterpoint: Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Carolyn was Camille in Kerouac’s novel, her husband was his muse Neal Cassady, or Dean Moriarty. And for several years, Kerouac was her lover too, with Cassady’s blessing.
Off the Road starts in the early days of Jack and Neal’s friendship, when Jack was trying to publish his first novel The Town and the City. It details her affair with Kerouac, the dizzying success of On the Road when it was finally published several years after it was written, and the impact of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
And it doesn’t shy away from the anguish and difficulties around Neal’s jail time, and the downside of his personality, showing him as tormented more than charismatic.
While Kerouac’s novel describes road trips with Cassady and his first wife, LuAnne, or the poet Allen Ginsberg (also Cassady’s lover), and leaving Carolyn behind looking after the couple’s three small children, Off the Road is an unflinching look at the consequences of this lifestyle.
Carolyn Cassady wrote it as a corrective to what she saw as the Beat Generation myth. “I don’t think Neal ever read it either,” she said of On the Road in interviews.
In a similar vein, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, published in 1964, is a memoir of his younger years living in Paris in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley, and later their young son.
It came about in the late 1950s, just a handful of years before Hemingway’s death, when critics argued he was a washed-up parody of his earlier self. He was reminded of having stored two trunks at one of his former favourite bars, at the Paris Ritz, and found they were filled with his handwritten notebooks from 30 years earlier.
Stitched together as a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tales, A Moveable Feast recounts his efforts as he developed his signature prose style and butted heads with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. And it’s a wonderful evocation of a golden era in culture and literature.
The stories contain Hemingway at his worst – sneering at those generous to him, condescending of established writers, bullying his friend Scott Fitzgerald – but also at his best, full of verve and vigour and ambition. And it contains a regret-filled apology to Hadley for the appalling way he went on to treat her.
Which is where Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife comes in. Published in 2011, nearly 50 years after Hemingway’s novel, it fictionalises the life of the Hadley, and is narrated by the mild mannered and sweet wife.
She shares in his excitement at this productive time when he was a serious young writer learning his trade, and they were blissfully happy together, enjoying the best Paris had to offer on a shoestring.
And it details the chain of events that led to the demise of their marriage – her losing a briefcase containing the only draft of a number of his earliest stories, her getting pregnant before he was ready, his affair with the woman who’d become his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and his failure to feature Hadley in his breakthrough novel The Sun also Rises, despite including and immortalising all their circle of friends.
It’s a great companion book to the impressionistic prose of A Moveable Feast, and breathes life and drama into a relationship full of vitality and youth, soured by the ugliest aspects of success and ambition.
The TV series, The Affair, and the quartet of books On the Road and Off the Road, A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife, with their multiple view point, first person narratives, all add up to a fascinating insight and contribute to that timeless theme so many of us come back to time and again with friends and loved ones – that is, the different motivations between men and women.