Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s celebrated war correspondents, a novelist and short story writer, a political activist, and Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (the only one who left him), has been an important figure in biographies and histories, some of which she attacked, some of which she ignored.

Paula McLain’s new book of historical fiction, Love and Ruin, covers much the same ground as Amanda Vaill’s well-received Hotel Florida, which focused on several couples during the Spanish Civil War. McLain begins in 1937, when Gellhorn met Hemingway in Key West, and carries her narrative into the dissolution of the Gellhorn–Hemingway marriage during World War II.

Gellhorn despised biographies of writers and never wrote an autobiography. So it is difficult to imagine, even in fiction, such a reluctant witness to her own life, going on page after page about her deepest personal feelings, especially about Ernest Hemingway, whom she grew to loathe. What kind of biographical novel could do justice to such a recalcitrant and reticent subject?

In a “Note on Sources,” McLain states “my Gellhorn isn’t the Gellhorn, for how could she be? That woman is a mystery, the way we’re all mysteries, to our friends and family and loved ones, and even to ourselves.” So what is the point of biographical fiction? McLain never really makes a convincing case, so let me help her out. A novelist can try to write in the subject’s voice in a way a biographer dare not. A novelist can probe areas of a subject’s life for which there is spotty evidence, or none at all, but which can be imagined given what is known about the subject. In Blonde,for example, Joyce Carol Oates presents the harrowing aspects of Marilyn Monroe’s childhood in dramatic scenes that no biographer can rival. A biographical novel may also speculate and invent characters, providing a new way to assess events that might inspire biographers and historians to think afresh about the evidence they have accumulated. That should be the point of biographical fiction: showing how what we know from reading the biographies and histories is not enough. In short, the biographical novelist can actually deepen the mystery, revealing the inadequacy of the documented record and of what has been made of that record.

McLain’s novel is a failure on all these counts and more. And the failure is not hers alone.

McLain’s novel is a failure on all these counts and more. And the failure is not hers alone. Like most biographical novelists, she relies on secondary sources. What she has read—no matter how much of it—is pre-filtered. Her “Note on Sources” reveals she has done no archival work. Even Gellhorn’s published letters constitute a small part of her correspondence, selected by her authorized biographer and therefore suspect. McLain does cite Hotel Florida, which provides a very rounded portrait of Gellhorn’s character, including her lively flirtation with all sorts of men and her determined blindness to what was happening as Communist thugs took over parts of Spain and murdered the anarchists and others supporting the Spanish Republic against Franco’s forces. It’s not enough. The cloying love scenes between Gellhorn and Hemingway in Love and Ruin are especially hard to take since Gellhorn, by her own testimony, and in Vaill’s research, rarely found sex satisfying. Similarly, the Gellhorn in Love and Ruin lauds For Whom the Bell Tolls, even though Gellhorn often denigrated the novel. Was Gellhorn rewriting history—erasing her earlier enthusiasm in her bitter retrospective comments on Hemingway? But McLain’s novel is also retrospective, or supposedly so—although McLain’s Gellhorn lacks the scathing, darkly humorous tone that made Gellhorn’s fitful comments on her past so intriguing.

The Gellhorn in this novel has a faux-naif voice, a willingness to talk that seems all wrong. She always presented herself as a reluctant witness to her own life. Shouldn’t a novelist respect that? The prickly side of this ambitious woman’s personality is almost entirely absent. McLain’s Gellhorn is always well meaning and perplexed when things go wrong. In fiction, even biographical fiction, the novelist has a right to invent a character at odds with the historical record. But that character has to be convincing on her own. Who can believe a Martha Gellhorn who speaks like this: “No matter what else happened going forward, Ernest and Madrid and this awful, marvelous war were tangled up together inside me, like the story of my own life.” “Going forward”? That asinine expression that we hear every day now does not belong in this novel, reminding us not of Martha Gellhorn but of Paula McLain. Hemingway is similarly anodized. When he gets sore about all the fawning over him on his Hawaii honeymoon with Gellhorn, McLain has him say: “The next person who touches me will get a sock in the nose.” “Next person”? “Sock in the nose”? McLain sounds like she is writing for the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s. Hemingway is reported, by Caroline Moorhead, to have said that he would “cool” “the next son of a bitch who touches me.”

The best writing in Love and Ruin occurs in the brief italicized passages when Hemingway’s point of view is introduced—an immense relief after so much bogus first-person confessional prose:

He hadn’t always understood the thing about cats. He hadn’t always understood himself, either. When he was young, it had often seemed as if nearly anything could finish him off. He felt too much. That was the truth of it. He noticed too many things in people’s eyes, so that even a meal with his family could make him feel split open and exposed. His parents soon guessed how it was for him because he’d not learned to hide it yet, but they couldn’t help him. No one could help him until he began to learn how to seal over the wounded, flinching place inside and feel an almost surgical relief. It had taken time to learn, and a lot of concentration.

Such passages are intimate and yet still at a remove from the subject. He does not have to say what he feels. He just feels.

The tell-all biographical novel seems to be a trend that has to be stopped in its tracks, if you will pardon the cliché. By saying less, these novels could accomplish more.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 65
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