1:2 A NH Writer’s Life
By BEVERLY STODDART, InDepthNH.org
On the cover of Robert Wheeler’s book, Hemingway’s Paris: A Writer’s City in Words and Images, is the picture of a young man, a bartender, in a starched white shirt and black bow tie. The photograph is in black and white, and the starkness of the shirt stands out from the dark bar where he tends to customers. He has a gentle smile on his face as he shines long-stemmed goblets. Robert tells me his publisher chose that particular picture from all others he took while on trips to Paris to immerse himself, during winter months, in all the places Hemingway went and experienced.
Wheeler’s book portrays an intimate journey through the Paris of Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man in the 1920s living in the City of Light with his wife, Hadley. Through his photographs and his prose, Robert hopes to inspire his readers to visit Paris and to see and to feel the love and the loss that Ernest and Hadley experienced.
When I first read Wheeler’s book, I was sitting in the Colby Memorial Library in Danville, New Hampshire. It was a quiet afternoon in the sunny small-town library. An old black lab wandered over and appreciated a petting. Hemingway’s Paris was a perfect book to be reading in the serenity of the moment. The prose Wheeler writes is just enough. The melancholy black and white photographs are perfectly paired with the words, as perfectly as Burgundy wine pairs with Beef Bourguignon in the best of a candle lit restaurant. Wheeler’s book proves that Paris continues, to this day, to whisper the story of Ernest and Hadley. He tells me of his process.
“The images came first, then the prose. I believe Paris wants to be seen in black and white and experienced during the winter months. It is during these months that the city is most romantic, and yet melancholy…the perfect stage, I discovered, for this true story.”
In 1986, Wheeler had a transformative moment in his life. He read Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published book, The Garden of Eden, sending him on a journey of discovery of all things Hemingway. In my interview with Robert, I ask if he considers himself an Ernest Hemingway authority. The notion puts him off.
“No,” he says, “I don’t want ever to be seen as the authority. I think the more you know, the less you really do.” He agrees that I can call him the go-to person on all things Ernest Hemingway. He has been given the great honor of writing the foreword for the re-release of Hemingway’s first breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises. It will publish in January 2022.
Robert Wheeler is an author, photojournalist, lecturer, student of jiu-jitsu, and in his heart, a teacher. Whether it was teaching returning veterans or adults finally getting their chance at a college degree through night classes at Southern New Hampshire University, he loves teaching. He volunteered at the Strafford County Jail, where he taught inmates the significance and the beauty of well composed prose. He helps coach kids at the Kevin Watson Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school in Dover where he, too, is a student. The love of teaching shines through him as he speaks about those students he has encountered over the years. For indeed, you have to embody generosity and the joy of others to be a good teacher.
What better way is there to teach us about Ernest Hemingway than through a series of photographs and prose? In the book, on the opposing page of a photograph of the Arthur Bourgeois sculpture in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and taken on a winter’s day with leafless trees and a covering of snow on the ground, he writes, “Like this photograph of the sculpture of The Actor, Hemingway himself evolved into one—a man, with a public persona that differed somewhat from his true nature.”
His process was to go to Paris, alone in winter, and search for Hemingway by seeing Paris with his own eyes and, perhaps, by feeling something that others before him had missed. What he found instead was something altogether unexpected.
“I was alone there…I woke up alone. I walked alone. I sat in cafés and restaurants alone. I went to the museums alone, and I slept alone. Through the vail of loneliness, the city began to change and began to present itself, not through Hemingway’s eyes, but through Hadley’s eyes…through the loneliness and the despair she must have felt from having been cast aside by her true love, Ernest.”
Hadley had discovered that Hemingway was having an affair with her best friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, and the two eventually divorced right at the time of Hemingway’s rise to literary fame through his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Wheeler then goes to the small Left Bank hotel where Hadley stayed after the end of her marriage. He offers a cleaning lady twenty euros to allow him entrance into her room, as he needed to see and to feel the essence of the room and look out the windows to see what she had seen. He tells me, “I don’t think you can completely write honestly about something unless you’ve experienced it.”
Sitting on the bed and looking out the same window that Hadley had, Robert saw the iron bars from the balcony and remembers her quote that she once lovingly said to Ernest, the world is a jail, and we’re going to break free from it together. “There she is. The walls slanting in on her, making her feel small. The bars… imprisoned by the one she loved. And between the bars, down below, the very statue of Marshal Ney, the French military commander Hemingway believed to be the embodiment of loyalty.”
Within the pages of Hemingway’s Paris, a book that critics hailed as “achingly effective and evocative,” Robert gives to us a fresh perspective on this city, a stunningly historic city, one bathed in the light of artistic expression, and a city where Hemingway learned, loved, and lost. With each turn of the page, our emotions are stirred, and our desire to learn and to travel is awakened.
Finally, I ask Robert what wisdom he might offer to a new writer. He ponders. “Hemingway would say to always get the weather in your stories. I agree. But before that, read everything you can…and then follow the wisdom of Proust when he says that the real voyage of discovery, which is what writing a story must be, consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.
Next: Robert Wheeler and Hemingway’s Havana