Everything Old Is New Again

Lauren Elkin

In the past few years it’s gotten so you can’t go to the movies without finding onscreen a burly guy dressed as Ernest Hemingway, cavorting with women wearing shingled hair and calf-length skirts. Everywhere filmgoers turn, flappers and gangsters and accent coaches abound. Culturally, we’re experiencing an intense fetish for the 1920s and ’30s that shows no sign of abating. As a scholar specializing in the literature of that period, I must say I’m tickled.

The mythical interwar period offers a seductive spectacle, but the 1930s was not a cheerful decade, and our current affinity with it is not just nostalgic; it’s also uncomfortable, with roots in the 2008 economic downturn, when parallels to 1929 became legion. “We’re in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s!” cried the pundits. (That would put us, now, roughly in 1933.) We’re so miserable in our double-dip recession that we want to go back and see how they managed to get by. But we want more than simply to go back in time: many of the films and television shows that indulge in 1930s nostalgia explicitly remind us that we can’t go back and visit the past without an intermediary. And so the filmmakers invent ways to bridge the gap. We can’t travel back to 1920, but Owen Wilson can in Midnight in Paris. We can’t uncover and read Wallis Simpson’s special secret letters, allegedly hoarded in a steamer trunk by Mohammed Al-Fayed, but Abbie Cornish can in W.E.

This formal conceit introduces a note of trouble into what is otherwise an idealized vision of the past, since the protagonists who serve as intermediaries have to ask themselves what might be wrong with their present that forces them to look to the past. Indeed, many recent films and television shows that plunge us into the past interestingly trouble our need to be immersed in it by presenting the simultaneity of past and present in a single camera shot. Think of the pale-blue Converse sneakers Sofia Coppola placed in Marie Antoinette’s closet: the detail (what Roland Bathes called the punctum) in the eighteenth-century field of vision that becomes at the same time a twenty-first-century field of vision. Or of Tom Stoppard’s BBC adaptation of Parade’s End, which begins with a prism reflecting the past in non-linear slivers of time.

What does this mediated search for lost time imply for historical fiction? A number of recently published books have shown a similar interest in representing two moments at once, rooting their historical narratives in a present moment of recall. The techniques prose adopts to realize this simultaneity, however, are by necessity more inventive than those available to film. These writers prove themselves aware of the transporting power of the visual, but by complicating the author function, as in A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, relying on intertextual references, as in The Paris Wife and Rules of Civility, and developing anti-linear plot-lines, as in The Time in Between, these texts interrogate the present as much as the past. They look for commonalities between the 1930s and today: What hasn’t changed? What can we learn? How can we set ourselves a better course?

Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife is saturated with our awareness of the epic saga of Hemingway’s life and loves. But here, he is not yet the Great Writer of Midnight in Paris, solemnly intoning monosyllabic truths, or the barrel-chested bastard of Hemingway & Gellhorn, stealing assignments right out from under his wife. Instead, in this novel narrated through his first wife Hadley Richardson’s eyes, we find a sweet kid, trying to make time for writing while figuring out the right way to live. Although Janet Maslin in the New York Times accused the novel of “literary tourism,” The Paris Wife does not idealize Paris in the 1920s. As Hadley and Ernest sit in a restaurant celebrating Christmas, a horse walks by “pulling a tank wagon full of sewage”; later they drink so much they have to take turns throwing up into their chamber pot. This is a subtle nod at the myth that has built up around literary Paris, when the jazz was hot, the champagne was cold, and every writer sitting in La Rotonde was a future Hemingway. Most readers approaching a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s Paris years will have this myth in mind, and McLain methodically dismantles it.

McLain rightly connects the disintegration of Hemingway’s first marriage with the crumbling social mores of the period; Ernest and Hadley repeatedly ask themselves what kind of marriage—what shape, what symmetry—is possible in their relentlessly modern era. After they marry, Ernest tells Hadley he was advised by “a very wise Italian officer” that the only way to manage the kind of fear the Great War instilled in him was to get married. Hadley understands this one way; Ernest in another.

 

“So your wife would take care of you? That’s an interesting way to think about marriage.”

“I actually took it to mean that if I could take care of her—you, that is—I’d worry less about myself. But maybe it works both ways.”

“I’m counting on that,” I said.

 

The model Hadley fears is exactly the one that will come to pass, as she puts her musical ambitions on hold so that he can work and travel and write. This struggle is not Ernest and Hadley’s alone; it belongs to everyone in their expatriate social set. Ezra Pound is fooling around with Olga Rudge and his wife Dorothy doesn’t seem to mind. Pauline Pfeiffer—the future second Mrs Hemingway—casually inserts herself into Ernest and Hadley’s marriage, going so far, in one scene, as to slip into bed with them. On Ernest’s side, of course. Marriage seems ready for a makeover; relationships are what you can make of them.

The longer they live in Paris, the more Hemingway turns into “the quintessential Left Bank writer,” a figure that “had made him cringe two years before.” He takes up with Pauline, and, overwhelmed by the love he feels for both women, decides he must “change his life to match his circumstances”:

 

Pound had managed it. He had Shakespear and Olga both and no one doubted he loved them. He didn’t have to lie; everyone knew everything and it all worked because he’d kept pushing and hadn’t compromised or become someone else…. Why couldn’t Pfife be his girl? The arrangement might be deadly, but couldn’t marriage also be, if it banked the coals in you?

 

We know before we even start reading how it’s going to end, but by writing about a time similar to yet worlds away from our own, and by orienting the narrative through Hadley’s perspective, McLain creates a discussion of marriage that can take place in non-moralizing terms. This is the trick that historical fiction must pull off: making us care about the outcome of something we already know the outcome of, focusing readers less on what happens than on how it happened, and why.

And from Hemingway’s Paris to Fitzgerald’s New York: Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility, an ambitious but tepid novel about a guy from nowhere pretending to be a wealthy Manhattan playboy. Set amidst the champagne sparkle of Jazz Age New York City, the novel reads like a bloodless updating of The Great Gatsby. Both works feature an attractive, wealthy young man who is not what he appears to be; both share an interest in the shifting moral codes of the ’20s and ’30s. In The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway is the moral core of the book; in Rules of Civility it’s George Washington who provides personal guidelines for good living, his own Rules of Civility, frequently referenced in the narrative and even reproduced in the book’s appendix. Most of Washington’s advice is timeless: “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered”; “Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave”; and, above all, “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” Eventually, when he can no longer obey this last precept, protagonist Tinker Grey must leave New York, much like Nick Carraway, who finds through the events of the novel that even his tolerance has a limit. But instead of a Gatsby-like tale of a golden boy’s fall from grace, Towles describes Tinker Grey’s redemption through his slow descent from golden boy to hobo.

Towles’s novel is about a New York struggling after the Great Depression to return to the glitz and glamour of the Roaring ’20s, already mythological in the 1930s’ rearview mirror.

With settings ranging from the 21 Club to the Condé Nast offices to sprawling estates on Long Island, Rules of Civility is about a New York struggling after the Great Depression to return to the glitz and glamour of the Roaring ’20s, already mythological in the 1930s’ rearview mirror. The narrative is told from two different points of recollection: the unspecified moment of writing, which looks back at a night in the late 1950s, when the narrator was prompted in turn to look back at the 1930s. Whereas European narratives of the 1930s are often attempts to come to terms with the damage done to society in the 1920s, in American literature we tend to see more nostalgia for the 1920s in 1930s narratives: once New Yorkers started coming out of the Depression they tried to re-create the Jazz Age of the previous decade, so rudely interrupted by the Crash of 1929.

Rules of Civility begins by commenting on the disintegrating mores of the late 1950s (“A drunken young socialite in pursuit of a waiter stumbled and nearly knocked me to the floor … At formal gatherings, somehow it had become acceptable, even stylish, to be drunk before eight”) but at the same time reflects on the relative innocence of that period viewed from the present day: “In the 1950s, America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets. Europe had become a poor cousin—all crests and no table settings…. [A]ll of us were drunk to some degree. We launched ourselves into the evening like satellites and orbited the city two miles above the Earth, powered by failing foreign currencies and finely filtered spirits.”

All this exposition and alliteration makes the passage sound like it should be said in voiceover by a smooth Dick Tracy voice with a saxophone playing in the background. So it’s jarring when we finally realize it’s a woman speaking: the narrator is one Katey Kontent, the spunky heroine of the piece, now a middle-aged matron, but once quite the gal about town. She’s happy in her marriage, but vulnerable to the lure of nostalgia. On the night in question, at the opening of a Walker Evans retrospective, she recognizes the mysterious Tinker Grey in two of Evans’s photographs. Inevitably, we are told: “I found my thoughts reaching into the past … Yes, my thoughts turned to Tinker and to Eve—but they turned to Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile and to Anne Grandyn too. And to those turns of the kaleidoscope that gave color and shape to the passage of my 1938.” The kaleidoscope formulation is trite and the Walker Evans contrivance feels a bit forced (each chapter is prefaced by a photograph from the series Evans shot on the New York subway in 1938). Nevertheless it reminds us that visuality is the preferred conduit to the past, even for novels. We see a photograph and immediately our imaginations are engaged: what was it like?

The allusion to Walker Evans’s subway photographs brings to mind his well-known work for the Farm Security Administration, photographing the rural poverty caused by the Great Depression. Rules of Civility emphasizes the tragedy of the Depression and America’s determination to pull itself up and out. But the photographs of Tinker Grey question the blind optimism of this narrative—one that remains with us today. In one, he looks wealthy yet careworn; in the other, “vibrant and fearless and naive.” Katey’s husband mistakenly thinks the wealthy, worried Tinker is the later photograph, but in fact it is the other way around: from riches to rags. Over the course of the novel, Tinker loses his fortune, but he is happier because of it.

Fitzgerald’s flashy New York nightlife gets another treatment in Ron Hansen’s A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, which takes us back to Queens in 1926–7, when the city was mesmerized by the spectacle of a pair of lovers on trial for murdering the woman’s husband. Like an almanac, or a Wikipedia entry, Hansen sets the scene:

 

Scott Fitzgerald would rename the twenties “the Jazz Age” and note that it “raced along under its own power served by great filling stations full of money.” Wealth began to seem available to anyone then. Chrysler was founded. Scotch Tape was invented. The first-ever motel opened. RCA’s shares were soaring in price and the stock market itself was high-flying due to an optimistic and gambling middle class that had formerly bought only Liberty Bonds.

 

Hansen does an interesting thing in this novel to complicate the author function. Whereas one kind of historical novel is careful not to break the fourth wall, so to speak, by letting on how carefully what we’re reading has been researched and recreated, Hansen foregrounds his research. The first half of the novel describes the affair that led to the murder (which was pulled off so sloppily that Damon Runyon called it the “Dumbbell Murder”) while the second half describes the trial. The narrator shifts from closely and novelistically relating the events to becoming a sort of newspaper commentator. With this shift, Hansen establishes the link between the 1920s and today.

The shift from immersive storytelling to distanced journalism also carries a subtle critique of the way criminals are treated in the justice system and in the media. Ruth and Judd became more important as signifiers than as people with interior lives: their story is slowly turned into the legal narrative the police and the courts need to establish in the due process of law, and into the salacious narrative the media needs to promote to sell papers. Hansen continues to call them “Ruth” and “Judd,” but increasingly refers to them by their full names, as they would have been known to the newspaper-reading public. Hansen describes Ruth on the stand from a very external perspective: “a felt, brimmed helmet hat hiding much of her straw hair, and her frosty eyes avoiding all others.” A paragraph later, Hansen writes:

 

When there was a little peace, Justice Scudder tilted left toward Ruth and in his rich, theatrical voice cautioned, “Now, madam, you are not required to take the chair as witness….”

“I’ll take the stand, please,” she said in that soft, velvety, affectionate soprano that few there had ever heard.

 

We, however, unlike those in the courtroom, are familiar with Ruth’s voice, her eyes, and her charms, thanks to the previous 200 pages of novel we have read about her.

Hansen’s experimental shift in voice earned censure from critics of the novel: Kristin Ohlson of the Cleveland Plain Dealer complained that the novel’s main “flaw” was that it read as “reportage,” while in the New York Times Janet Maslin found that the book “loses momentum by rehashing details that have already been amply described.” I disagree; although this shift does change the novel’s pace, it is also what makes the novel so interesting. Hansen first tells the central story straightforwardly, then comments on its fictionality; the point of the book is not the affair and the murder, but the way that affair and murder were understood in their time. The reader is naturally distanced from Ruth and Judd once they become characters in a news story rather than a novel. Hansen quite usefully points out the advantages and limitations of different modes of storytelling, while at the same time inviting comparisons between the appetite of the 1920s newspaper reader for spectacle and today’s.

The Time In Between, by María Dueñas, is a sweeping historical novel set in Spain and Morocco during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, about a humble young seamstress called Sira who becomes an acclaimed couturière through nothing but pluck, canny instincts, a willingness to work hard, and a mystifying ability to pick up German on the fly. Although the prose is purple and the characters thin (“I decided to confront the future from behind a mask of security and courage, preventing people from seeing my fear, my miseries, and the dagger that was still piercing my soul”), the novel does feature an interesting use of time and structure. Like the other books under review, The Time In Between looks back from an unspecified moment of recall to tell a story set in the past, and many of the chapters move forward in time only then to double back. This may be a novelist’s ploy to hook the reader at the beginning of each chapter, but it mimics the novel’s structure on a local level in a way that emphasizes that it is both situated in the past and ordered into narrative.

These gaps in a historical narrative—even a fictional one—are a reminder that the truth of history is elusive; our nostalgic entertainments can only ever partially succeed.

Calling the novel The Time In Between emphasizes the liminal timeframe Dueñas creates by having the flashbacks continue in real time, so that Sira simultaneously tells the story in her present and lives it in the past. Dueñas dwells on the indeterminacy of history, its holes, the narrative paths not taken. She leaves some stories untold, pointing us only to where they deviate. One night in Morocco, Sira must pull off an illegal, covert operation; she goes to the meeting point wearing guns wrapped around her body in a sheet, under a Muslim girl’s haik. When the police arrive just as she is unwrapped, she has to run, leaving behind the man who unwrapped her. “Perhaps they took him back to headquarters and he tried to escape; or perhaps they killed him, a shot in the back as he jumped the tracks. There were a host of other possible scenarios, but I knew I’d never be able to discover which of them turned out to be closest to the truth.” These gaps in a historical narrative—even a fictional one—are a reminder that the truth of history is elusive; our nostalgic entertainments can only ever partially succeed. Even if we know the history we don’t know how this story ends, or what it was like to live it. “What happened after the war to Marcus and me and to those in our immediate circle,” Sira reflects, “was never recorded. Our destinies might have gone in any direction, as we succeeded in remaining unnoticed, forever on the reverse side of history, crisscrossed by stitches, invisible lives from the time in between.”

Finally these novels pose an important question about what our digital age might gain by traveling to the analog past. In an article for Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz suggested that the explosion of films set in distinctive moments in history was about a longing for things we could touch, a result of our digital culture’s glass-screened experience of the world. The “luxurious sets, costumes, hairstyles, music and slang” are not only a gesture at a vanished, idealized past, but are also about “tactility—a fear that the virtual world is displacing the real one, and a corresponding conviction that a cinematic or televised re-creation of the past—however stylized or ‘unreal’—can feel somehow more real than whatever we’re living through now.” The Time In Between begins with the most seemingly banal of observations:

 

A typewriter shattered my destiny. The culprit was a Hispano-Olivetti, and for weeks, a store window kept it from me. Looking back now, from the vantage point of the years gone by, it’s hard to believe a simple mechanical object could have the power to divert the course of an entire life in just four short days, to pulverize the intricate plans on which it was built. And yet that is how it was, and there was nothing I could have done to stop it.

 

That Dueñas’s book highlights technology seems significant. Invoking old technologies in a historical narrative only highlights the new ones: The Time In Between hinges on a typewriter and was most certainly composed on a computer.

On the other hand, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion underlines the continuity from the late 1920s to our present moment, detailing the media circus that was the Snyder-Gray trial. Fifteen hundred people crammed into the courtroom to watch the proceedings, including a number of celebrities: the eleventh Marquis of Queensbury and his wife; Irving Berlin; the director D. W. Griffith; the theater owner and producer David Belasco. Yet Hansen calls our attention to the shift in technology—the audience (who couldn’t get enough of the trial and its players) had to get their news from the newspaper and radio, but they had eleven newspapers in the New York area to choose from. Do I detect a subtle longing for the golden age of print journalism? “[E]ach paper,” Hansen writes in his historian’s tone, “would see its circulation double when Ruth or Judd was featured. So there were installments each day for the next few months and regular items through January 1928, and anything about them, their families, their ‘sordid love,’ or their ‘brutal, cold-blooded murder’ seemed a fair subject for discussion.”

Plus ça change.