Vol. 11, No. 3 -- Summer, 2002
In this issue:Ray Cristina: A Straight Look at Gay Paree
Photos from Paris
Letter to the Society from Tanuja Desai Hidier,Winner of the 1995 JJLS First Novel Fellowship
Judy Everson: "Generations Lost and Found: Hemingway and Jones’s French Connection"
Ray Cristina: A Straight Look at Gay Paree
In June of 2002, the James Jones Literary Society held its annual symposium in Paris, where James Jones lived and worked for fifteen years. Ray Cristina attended as the current winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.
When we arrived at De Gaulle airport after about 12 hours of traveling, it was raining cats and dogs (poodles) and it took another two hours to reach our hotel in Montparnasse, the Left Bank. We were caught up in endless streams of Renaults and Citroens and little German imports. The way the French drive, it's like bumper cars at Kennywood Park, except that they manage to miss each other by a couple of inches every time. I guess that’s why most of the cars are tiny, models we don’t even see in this country. Big cars wouldn’t be maneuverable enough. (Although French drivers have no respect whatsoever for other cars, or motorcycles, or the mega scooters that are so popular, or even bicycles, they do respect pedestrians. They must have been warned by the French authorities not to kill the tourists. Even if you cross in the middle of the street, they’ll stop and wait, and not blow the horn. Amazing contradiction.)
When our bus reached the hotel it stopped raining and the next six days were sunny and mild. The lovely old stone and stucco buildings with tile roofs and tall shuttered windows and all the same height march endlessly into the distance from every direction, and every third building is a brasserie with tables on the sidewalk, and the French walk and walk at a fast pace and slide past you with a Pardon and the women never let you catch their eye, unless you’re young and handsome, which I wasn’t. But I never took my eyes off them, which is probably why I got lost the first night there.
After a brief nap, I went out to walk the left bank at 6 p.m. and I didn’t stagger back to the hotel until 9 p.m. and I hadn’t stopped walking but for a minute, to ask directions three times. I first knew I was lost when I passed the same gypsy woman sitting on the sidewalk with a child in her lap and a sign saying she was hungry when I passed her the second time. I was afraid to take a bus; I might end up in another country. Nor a taxi. I had forgotten the name of my hotel. And the Metro was a total mystery. (I didn’t use the Metro alone until the last two days, and then I studied a map of the connecting routes for an hour before I got on, but in two days I didn’t make a single wrong turn, and the Metro is great when you’re clinging to a pole with some lovely etc. etc.) Eventually that night I made it back to Montparnasse.
Of the three things Paris is fabled for (the architecture, the food, and the women), I was most impressed by the first. Paris is French vanilla. All the buildings are varieties of the same color, parchment. And all the women are varieties of the same color, brunette. Many of them (the ones I think of as classic French) have gray or blue eyes, occasionally icy blue. Breathtaking.
But I was not taken by haute cuisine, although everybody else in my group spent a fortune on food. The biggest test of the day for me was ordering a meal, and the biggest surprise was what was delivered. One night, in a small bistro with Michael and Donna Lennon, friends of Mailer and my traveling companions, I ordered shrimp. I was delivered lamb chops, which I never eat. Fortunately Donna had been delivered chicken, and she liked lamb, and we switched plates. So I had ordered shrimp, was delivered lamb, and ended up eating chicken. A typical experience for me, because I simply would not ask a waiter to translate the whole menu, as many American tourists do, and are refused. Then they go home and say that the French are rude. I don't think so.
Of course, during my six days, between meetings, I saw the things I should see. The Louvre. The Musée d'Orsay (French Impressionist paintings in a former train station with a high arched ceiling, staircases at each end behind glazed glass panels, and shadows moving behind the glass, people climbing to the upper floors). A long walk up the Champs Elysée to the Arch, and the Eiffel Tower (which I did not climb, because the French believe the terrorists are going to hit it someday).
Most impressive of all, Notre Dame--when you're inside, that is. Soaring stained glass inside the towers, your head stretched back as far as possible to look up. To me, what was more impressive than the building itself, which took three centuries to finish, was the audacity of the men who imagined it. What made them think it could be done?
There was a scaffold along one tower outside and a little girl in our group (there were about 20 of us and we often traveled in groups of three, because the taxi will only ride three at a time, but you can split the fare that way} asked me why it was there and I said it was because Quasimodo was getting old and tired and they put it up to make it easier for him. I don’t know if she believed me, but she liked the idea.
The highlight of the trip, however, came when I found a guide, a Frenchwoman who had been attending the meetings, to take us through Montmartre and point out all the places where the Impressionists lived and worked, and especially Toulouse-Lautrec. (The hill must have been tough on his legs, I thought.) I got five of us together and we bought her a high-priced lunch, because she wouldn’t accept payment in euros. But she ordered the most expensive wine on the menu (good for her), which alone was worth about 40 euros (think dollars). And somebody said at the brasserie, halfway up the hill to Sacré Cœur, "Ray, you look so relaxed." And I said, "See that apartment on the second floor across the street? I’ve leased it. I’m going to live here." It reminded me so much of San Francisco, I felt right at home. And it is still full of working artists, the Mo marte.
But I could never live in Paris. It’s a city for the young. I would walk the streets, an old man, and the girls would break my heart.
The evening after Norman and his wife, Norris, and George Plimpton did their reading at the American Church (Mailer was Hemingway, Plimpton was Fitzgerald, and Norris was Zelda, poor Zelda), there was a party in a million-dollar apartment on St. Germain, which I paid a hundred dollars to attend, limited to a hundred guests of the James Jones Literary Society, and despite the waiters and canapés and champagne I felt I had wasted my money, until two things happened. Mailer was seated in a room set aside for him, white-haired and heavy in his chair, signing autographs in a crush of people. At one point I heard him say to a man who handed him a slip of paper, I only sign books. My books. And there was a young girl who had gained audience by wearing a lowcut, very lowcut blouse kneeling beside his chair and talking and talking, and Mailer nodding and nodding, until I thought he might rest his head on her bosom, and lord knows, I wouldn’t have blamed him. But I didn’t try to talk to him, so that wasn’t one of the two things.
But toward midnight, when the crowd had thinned a little, I went to Norris who was unsurrounded for the moment and said (she’s a woman of a certain age but pretty, with dark curly tresses, kind of a tall Shirley Temple) and I said: "I have three things to tell you."
"What are they?"
"You were magnificent. That’s one. You’re beautiful."
"Thank you, that’s two."
"I’m sorry you had to lose your mind."
She laughed and said, "A mind is a terrible thing to lose."
"Yes, that’s true," I said, and turned to leave, and as I did, she reached out and patted me on the back. Nice touch.
The other thing was when I approached Plimpton who is very tall and never sat down and was never unsurrounded and muscled my way in and said, in a slightly annoyed tone of voice,
"I’ve been waiting all evening to introduce myself to you."
"And who are you?"
"I’m the current winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship."
"Congratulations. Why don’t you send it to me?"
"The whole book? You don’t want the whole book."
"Well then, a chapter. Or better yet, some excerpts."
"I’ll send you some excerpts," I said.
Which I did, as soon as I got home. He edits the Paris Review out of New York now. So that was worth a hundred dollars, even if he never uses it.
The only exchange I had with Mailer had occurred the day before, after he addressed the Society at the American University. A bunch of us went to lunch at a nearby brasserie, and I took a seat out in the sun with some of the women I hadn’t got to know yet, and Michael Lennon came out and said, He wants you inside.
So I went inside, and there were six of us men there, in this crowded little place, and Mailer seated between his two canes. (But he’s still sharp.) And they were playing up to him, which is what he’s used to, and I decided to mind my own business so I kept my head buried in my sandwich. Then somebody mentioned that the Jones museum in Illinois even owns a Jones jockstrap (which subject could only come up in a group of men) and I raised my head and said,
"Speaking of which, I remember when I bought my first one."
Michael looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. They all looked at me.
"I was a green high school sophomore and I went someplace where I hoped I would be waited on by a male salesclerk."
"Where’d you go?" Mailer asked.
I said, "To Kaufmanns department store in downtown Pittsburgh."
"But there was no male salesclerk so finally I went up to this middle-aged woman and said I wanted to buy a jockstrap.
And she said, 'What size?'
And I replied, 'Ahah average, I guess.'
And she pursed her lips, scowled and said, 'I mean your waist size, junior.'"
Mailer thought that was very funny. But those were the only words I had with him.
Newly-elected Jones Society president Kevin Heisler enjoys ice cream with his wife, Kaylie Jones, and their daughter, Eyrna, at Kaylie's favorite childhood ice cream shop near her family's former home on Île St. Louis.
Following the Paris Symposium at the American University in Paris,
participants, including Kim Cox and Kathy Stillwell, Society Secretary,
had dinner at Lipp's Restaurant, a favorite of James Jones and other
Don Sackrider, longtime friend of James Jones, a charter board director and former Society president, was a member of the Paris Symposium Steering Committee. He was responsible for coordinating all the flights, hotels and transfers for the guest speakers.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Bayne.
Dear Members of the James Jones Society:
I hope this letter finds you all well and enjoying summer in the States.
I am writing to let you know about the upcoming release of my novel, Born Confused.
The book comes out in hardcover with Scholastic Press in September in the USA, to be followed by a UK hardcover release in the spring of 2003, and a US paperback release in the summer of 2003 under the Push imprint; it will quite likely have a release in India as well. It is both an adult and young adult book, and advance copies should be ready this month.
The title of the novel, Born Confused, comes from "ABCD" (American Born Confused Desi, a term South Asians have for second generation US-born South Asians). It is a coming-of-age tale with an ABCD female protagonist, seventeen-year-old Dimple Lala, an aspiring photographer living in New Jersey, and is set both there and in New York City, largely in the context of the burgeoning South Asian club/bhangra scene in the city. The heart of Born Confused is about learning how to bring two cultures together without falling apart yourself in the process; learning how to become yourself, in short.
It is also about what happens when the 'suitable boy' your family chooses for you turns out actually to be suitable--due to his sheer unsuitability. And the complications that ensue when your best friend in the world begins to appropriate your culture--with unexpected results.
And it is about family: the one you are born into and the one you choose, and the moment when these two become one.
And-- it is about the power of music.
I'm particularly excited about it all because I don't believe this story--that of the ABCD in America--has been told in novel form in this way (though, happily, there are now some terrific films out there dealing with the theme, and there generally seems to be more and more interest brewing on the subject, both in the US and the UK, as I'm sure you know).
This book is not actually the one that I submitted (in progress) for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, though the second-generation South Asian theme plays a major role in both projects. Many of the ideas that worked their way into BC were things I was exploring through the film medium as well, during the course of making the two shorts and script writing, and incorporating more humor into my works came out of the film projects as well--which made it very enjoyable to write!
Having written Born Confused I know now that it had to be written first to sort out a lot of, well, confusion in my head on the identity/second generation issue. The "learning how to bring two cultures together without falling apart yourself" that is one of its principal themes was a very real process that I had to go through myself in many ways.
BC actually came out of a lot of things that were going on during the years I suddenly became blocked on "Tale of a Two-Hearted Tiger" (the James Jones submission), when the latter came too close to my actual life and I could no longer keep perspective on the characters or make sense of their stories. Ironically, it came out of the period in my life where I felt least that I knew what to write, that I knew least how to express these issues of biculturality. That wonderful vote of confidence from the James Jones Society was certainly a beacon during this foggy period, and I am very grateful for that; it was always in the back of my head that a very special group of people had believed in the Tiger book and in me, and I am sure that played a role in keeping that project very definitely in heart and in view for me during my moments of doubt--just a little further down the path than I'd originally thought, but still there.
While writing BC, the Tiger book did begin to creep back out of the shadows towards me. There are in fact a few sections I wrote for BC then cut that could actually work in the Tiger book, so that was a gift indeed. It was also exciting to see "The Border" win the London Writers /Waterstones Award for Fiction in the fall, and to have "Tiger, Tiger" included in the Big City Lit anthology celebrating the last decade of Asian American writing in New York last year--both of these stories were part of the James Jones submission.
I am very excited about the release of Born Confused, and I look forward to resuming work on "Tale of a Two-Hearted Tiger" next.
Please find my bio below, in case you'd like a little more information about the various projects.Best wishes and warm regards,
Tanuja Desai Hidier
Tanuja Desai Hidier's first novel, Born Confused, is forthcoming from Scholastic in September 2002. In October 2001 she was awarded first prize in the London Writers/Waterstones Competition for her short story "The Border" (available at Waterstones bookstores in the UK).
Also in the fall of 2001, her short story "Tiger, Tiger" was included in the Big City Lit anthology (New York City) celebrating the last decade of Asian American writing.
Previous to moving to London, Desai Hidier lived in New York City, where she worked as a writer/editor for magazines, CD-Rom projects, and websites by day, and by night on a variety of fiction, film, and music projects.
Her collection of connected stories, "Tale of a Two-Hearted Tiger." was the 1995 recipient of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. She was also a finalist for the 1997 Heekin Group Foundation Novel Competition. Her short films, The Test (which she wrote and directed) and The Assimilation Alphabet (which she co-wrote and -directed with Nisha Kumari Ganatra) deal with many of the same cultural assimilation themes as her fiction, specifically, that of first and second generation South Asians in the United States, India, and Pakistan. The Test has screened at the Tribeca Film Center and in the 19th Asian American International Film Festival, as well as in several other venues, including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Desh Pardesh festival in Toronto. It received an Award of Merit from the 1996 Sinking Creek Film & Video Festival at Vanderbilt University, and was included in the curriculum of a New York University course in 1997, "South Asian American Youth Comes of Age." The Assimilation Alphabet screened as part of the 20th Asian American International Film Festival.
In the musical field, until the fall of 2000 Desai Hidier was lead vocalist/lyricist for the New York-based punk-pop band Io. The band was named a finalist in Oxygen's "Roxygen on Oxygen" female vocalist talent search in the summer of 2000. She is now lead vocalist/lyricist for San Transisto, a London-based melodic rock/trip-hop band. They are in the process of recording a four-song demo CD. She is also currently songwriting/recording for a "virtual" band project, with participating musicians based in Los Angeles and London.
For more information, see http://www.thisistanuja.com.
Generations Lost and Found:
Hemingway and Jones’s French Connection
Paper read at the James Jones Literary Society Symposium, Paris, June 22, 2002
by Dr. Judith L. Everson,
Professor of English, University of Illinois at Springfield
In his important study of literary succession titled The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that aspiring authors must contest their ablest antecedents in a war of words. During this Oedipal struggle, the young challenger achieves the imaginative space for his own work by misreading, then rewriting one of his precursor’s masterpieces.
Bloom confines his theory to past poets, but its focus on the way art begets art also illuminates the complex, conflicted relationship between James Jones and Ernest Hemingway as well as explains certain affinities between their Paris novels. Just as the Society met in Paris because of Jones’s post-WWII residency there, so he came to Paris partly because it had been the site of Hemingway’s post-WWI apprenticeship. When Jones arrived in 1958, he was not an unknown like Hemingway in 1921, for fate had placed him at Pearl Harbor and prompted his first great novel. In May 1968 destiny posed another irresistible subject for his fiction by making him an eye witness to the Paris uprising. The resulting novel, The Merry Month of May, appeared in 1971. Although it offers a useful account of that turbulent event in French history, I am interested in its connection to American literary history -- specifically, in the way it seeks to evoke and exorcize Hemingway’s ghost by revisiting and revising his 1926 classic, The Sun Also Rises.
Among American novelists of the previous generation, it was Hemingway more than any other who haunted Jones throughout his career. His obsession with this literary forefather began early and persisted until Jones’s death in 1977. Whether on his own initiative or at the behest of his mentor Lowney Handy, Jones made what he described to Norman Mailer as “a really close study of Hemingway through his work” (letter, March 31, 1956, Hendrick, p. 241). Jones admitted to his friend Helen Howe that he had typed everything Hemingway ever wrote before venturing to write anything himself (“Glimpses,” p. 216). According to fellow Handy colonist Mary Ann Newlin Crank, Lowney assigned her writing students to copy the prose of Hemingway more than any other author’s and bent all her effort into making Jones “a second Hemingway” (“Glimpses,” p. 215).
Hemingway’s enduring influence on Jones can be documented in George Hendrick’s edition of Jones’s letters. Of the hundred or so selected for publication, 21 mention Hemingway, often at length. These references begin in 1946 and continue through 1971, showing that Hemingway was on Jones’s mind from his first decade as a writer to his last. Furthermore, Jones’s friends confirm Hemingway’s importance to him. Irwin Shaw said Jones “grappled with the ghost of Hemingway all his writing life,” adding that “Hemingway and Paris were always linked in his mind” and that while Jones “wanted to go beyond Hemingway,” he first “had to retrace Hemingway’s steps” (quoted in Morris, p. 94). Jones admitted that like all beginning writers, he had gone through a period of imitating his elders, but that after picking up what they had to offer, he had tried to slough off their influence (interview, “Creativity and Mental Health,” June 3, 1975, University of Texas at Austin archives). In Hemingway’s case, however, this proved difficult, which may explain why--according to William Styron--Jones developed “a stubborn prejudice” toward Hemingway, amounting to a “blind spot” (Foreword, Hendrick, x). Styron explained that while Jones admired Hemingway’s early stories, he found the later work “phony to the core” (ibid.). Jones probably adopted this attitude to keep Hemingway from being too intimidating a model and to emphasize where his record as an artist needed correction.
Had Jones remained a minor talent or an obscure writer, his hypersensitivity to Hemingway never would have been reciprocated. But their rivalry became mutual when Hemingway -- always a combative personality and eventually a paranoid one -- read From Here to Eternity in 1951. Greeted with blockbuster sales and critical accolades just a year after Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees had disappointed both readers and reviewers, Jones’s novel established him as an upstart contender in the eyes of the embattled champion. In a letter to Charles Scribner, who had unwittingly praised Jones’s book, Hemingway ranted: “To me he is an enormously skillful fuck-up and his book will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read it again . . . . But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot” (March 5, 1951, quoted in Lynn, p. 559). Why such rhetorical excess from the master of understatement? Beneath the bluster, we hear a veteran on the ropes, afraid he has met his match.
Ironically, these adversaries, who despite their animosity paid each other the compliment of serious regard, shared many similarities in their backgrounds and careers. Both were products of the Midwest, from which they escaped in fact but to which they returned in later fiction. Their fathers were professional men -- Clarence Hemingway a doctor in upstate Oak Park, Illinois; Ramon Jones a dentist in downstate Robinson. Sadly, after financial reverses, both fathers committed suicide. Hemingway and Jones viewed their fathers as decent but weak, biological role models more to be overcome than emulated. They also hated their mothers for being narrow-minded and domineering.
After high school, each young man encountered his generation’s war, got wounded physically and scarred psychologically, and underwent a lengthy recuperation. Lacking a college education, each was tutored by an older woman to whom the protégé was sexually attracted. Inevitably, Hemingway and Jones outgrew the respective spheres of Gertrude Stein and Lowney Handy, and both men later went public with their versions of the bitter break-ups.
For years they shared a publisher (Charles Scribner) and, more briefly, an editor (Max Perkins). They won fame and fortune with early novels that fictionalized their war experiences and tested prevailing limits on the literary use of strong language for realistic effect. Eventually, they suffered sliding sales and savage notices. Critics dismissed them as cases of arrested development for their association with the cult of masculinity, and they were also chided for their lavish lifestyles. After fighting poor health, they died before finishing their valedictory books, which were completed by loyal lieutenants and posthumously published.
For our purpose, however, the essential parallel between Hemingway and Jones is that they both lived for a time, decades apart, as expatriates in Paris and made the city a setting in two of their novels. Because Jones’s war trilogy has overshadowed his other fiction, few readers have paid attention to The Merry Month of May; fewer still have recognized its ambivalent homage to The Sun Also Rises, despite Jones’s admission to scholar R. W. Stallman that he had deliberately tried to update the earlier novel (letter, January 17, 1972, Hendrick, p. 333). It seems fitting to consider the way Jones’s underread and underrated Paris novel reveals the traces of its more celebrated inspiration. By exploring how Jones’s fictional portrait of literal as well as figurative fathers and sons helped him confront the aptly nicknamed Papa Hemingway, we can better appreciate the book’s unsung virtues and fathom its seeming flaws.
For starters, both novels share a tone more tragic than comic, in spite of their wry humor and upbeat titles. Hemingway’s symbolic sun seems to set rather than rise on his cast in the end, and Jones’s merry May precedes a gloomy summer. After opening in spring, season of rebirth, each narrative ultimately depicts a failure of fruition, public as well as private. In these paired novels Hemingway and Jones offer moving meditations on the theme of loss: lost illusions, lost ideals, lost chances. Their plots turn on generation gaps -- not just the complications that arise when the young feel alienated from their elders, but also the crisis that looms when neither individuals nor societies can regenerate themselves.
Besides portraying characters without a future, both books render Paris as a palimpsest, a cityscape that regularly recalls its prior historical and literary incarnations. Jones had come to Paris partly because of the way Hemingway described it, but he did not intend to follow in Papa’s footsteps slavishly while there. Indeed, when he tried to do so, he found Hemingway guilty of misrepresentation. After A Moveable Feast’s paean to 1920s Paris came out, Jones took his copy and walked the streets of the city for three days, trying -- and failing -- to find many of the places mentioned. He concluded, “Hemingway’s Paris doesn’t exist. The book isn’t about Paris. It’s about Hemingway” (Arthur Goodfriend, quoted in Garrett, p. 153). From a Bloomian perspective, Jones was clearing the way to attempt his own version of Paris, one more faithful to fact and less nostalgically self-absorbed than Hemingway’s. Interestingly, Jones’s own deployment of scene in Merry Month of May has been both praised and blamed. Allen Shepherd criticizes the novel as a thinly disguised Paris guidebook that fails to bring the city alive (Dictionary of Literary Biography, p. 64), whereas George Garrett credits Jones with making not only his most extensive but also his most functional use of place here (p. 148).
I find Garrett closer to the mark, largely because of the care Jones takes to situate his protagonist for symbolic effect as well as literal veracity. Like The Sun Also Rises, The Merry Month of May is retrospectively narrated in first person by a male journalist whose version of events proves partially problematic. Because Jake Barnes and Jack Hartley are semi-autobiographical figures, it is tempting to over-identify them with their creators
However, each storyteller, while sympathetic, is also suspect. Just as Jake shares Hemingway’s passion for an unobtainable lady and his aficion for bullfighting, Jack Hartley resembles Jones in many ways, including his age (47, same as Jones in 1968) and residence on the Ile St. Louis. This address epitomizes Jack’s vantage point as a privileged observer overlooking the action from a physical and emotional distance. He lives in the heart of the city, but the island isolates him nonetheless. Like Jake, Jack is an American in Paris, further proof of his marginalized status. Whereas Jake’s expatriation typifies the rootlessness of the lost generation, Jack’s limited assimilation into French culture and ambivalence toward the uprising reflect Jones’s own position. Of the main characters, only Jack’s French mistress Martine has a permanent stake in the rebellion’s outcome. Whether watching the conflict through binoculars from his balcony or touring the frontline for excitement at night, Jack remains a voyeur who stays above the fray.
Jack shares other traits with Jake besides his passive role as an observer- -namely, his frustrated desire for the woman he loves and his deteriorating friendship with the man who enacts his own darker impulses. Recall Jake’s rueful reflection on his tortured relationship with Brett Ashley: “Women made such swell friends . . . . In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship” (p. 152). The shifting faultline between friendship and love recurs in Jones’s novel. Jack cannot claim Louisa Gallagher, whom he has unconsciously long desired, not because of a physical impairment like Jake’s but because of a psychological inadequacy. We suspect well before Jack that his feelings for her exceed the bounds of friendship, but by the time he accepts this, his failure to act on it says more about his hangups than his scruples. If Jake naively hopes for too long that he and Brett can enjoy a healthy bond despite his impotence and her promiscuity, Jack only reluctantly sheds his illusion that the Gallagher marriage is everything his own failed union was not. He views Louisa, wife of his best friend and mother of his goddaughter McKenna, as off limits even after her husband deserts her and she reaches out to Jack with the admission that she has always loved him. Thus, though both novels seem over-sexed, they necessarily play most of their sex scenes offstage and withhold the payoff sex scene altogether. Jack’s false idealization of the Gallaghers blinds him to their frailty as well as to his own sick stake in their purported perfection. He is as much self-deceived as misled by them, and -- like Jake -- is ripe for a journey into self-discovery.
On this journey he must come to terms with his dark double, Harry Gallagher, Jack’s best friend and Louisa’s errant husband. Harry functions in relation to Jack as Robert Cohn does to Jake. Like Cohn, Harry invests in a literary review, leaves his family, and trysts with the transient temptress, whereas Jack (like Jake) pointedly does not. Like Cohn, Harry behaves badly in the narrator’s judgment -- in his case, by sacrificing his family for a fleeting fantasy and leaving Jack to do damage control. Although Jack shares the reader’s outrage at this narcissistic mid-life crisis, he never fully faces the fact that he shares Harry’s attraction to forbidden partners and resistance to commitment. When Jack paraphrases Jake’s famous line about Cohn by saying, “I feel I have not given an adequate picture of Harry Gallagher” (p. 28), Jones merely punctuates his point about their intended resemblance.
Into each volatile cast slinks a sexy, amoral catalyst. Samantha Marie Everton reprises Brett’s role, but with graver consequences for her playmates, who include Harry, Louisa, and their teenage son Hill, a Sorbonne rebel. Again, lest we miss Jones’s recreation of Samantha in Brett’s image, Jack compares her figure to “a sleek black-hulled racing yacht” (p. 109), reminiscent of Jake’s description of Brett, with her “curves like the hull of a racing yacht” (p. 30). This is neither plagiarism nor parody, but rather Jones’s simultaneous tribute to and attempted trumping of the master. If Brett’s fling with Cohn, a Jew, let Hemingway portray the anti-Semitism of the 20s, Samantha’s blackness allows Jones to press the 60s hot button of race. Furthermore, because she beds father and son, she intensifies Harry and Hill’s generational and ideological conflict; and because she comes on to Louisa, she raises the specter of bisexuality. Unfortunately, perhaps as a result of all the baggage she must carry, Samantha seems more contrived than credible, despite Jones’s comment that he had based her on an acquaintance who tried to seduce him as a way of getting to his beautiful wife Gloria (interview, Harakas, p. 154).¹
In each novel, the plot unfolds against an explosive social backdrop -- the Pamplona fiesta and the Paris uprising. True to form, Jones makes this comparison explicit by having Jack liken the mood on the streets of Paris during the revolt to that of “a bullfighting day in Spain” (p. 88). The festival invites participants to escape from routine into rowdiness, and the rebellion similarly subverts authority, raising spirits while it lowers inhibitions. In both cases, though, the change is only temporary. Significantly, the rising and falling action of the macrocosmic event anticipates and reinforces the microcosmic storyline. In Jones’s conclusion, the uprising ends not with a bang but a whisper, as the French shift support from the students to the government once the novelty wears off and the hardship sets in; simultaneously, the Gallagher family implodes, with Harry chasing Samantha to Israel, Louisa subsisting in a vegetative state after a botched suicide attempt, Hill fleeing romantic and political disillusionment to Spain, and McKenna being taken in by a convenient female family friend.
Jones clearly meant to connect these failed public and private revolts, but critics disagree about whether he succeeded. For James Giles, the novel loses its balance by focusing less on the student revolution and more on the sexual revolution, and by rendering the former too simplistically in terms of the latter (p. 162). Steven Carter disagrees. He views the lopsided battle between the establishment and its young critics as an analogue to the foredoomed struggle between Harry and Hill, cynical father and idealistic son (p. 135). Ultimately, both rebellions appear childish and hopeless. Although Paris survives, it is hard to identify any other winners: DeGaulle’s victory is short-lived, and Harry’s freedom comes at too high a price.
Like Hemingway before him, Jones eventually faced the generation gap from the other side, and as he did so, he continued to measure himself against his surrogate father figure. In 1972, Jones validated the thesis of A Moveable Feast -- the book he had condemned as self-centered and dishonest eight years earlier- -when he told an interviewer that Paris was for the young (Theodoracopulos). Having returned to the United States in 1974, he confided to another journalist a year later that his greatest challenge now was to grow old gracefully, something he felt Hemingway had failed to do (Harakas).
The anticipated and actual response to The Merry Month of May gave Jones the opportunity to show how he faced the affront of aging, personally and professionally. His inscriptions of the novel for his children are revealing in the former sense. To Kaylie, he wrote, “You guys are moving too fast for me to keep up”; to Jamie, he wrote, “I wonder what you’ll think of all this, and all of us, when you’re old enough” (Morris, p. 145). Having faulted his own father for various failings, Jones was determined not to repeat them. Yet now, in a classic role reversal, he saw that he and his generation would soon confront the judgment of their offspring, and he pondered posterity’s verdict about his life and his work.
Jones the private figure had moved from judgmental son to pensive father; likewise, Jones the writer had passed from apprenticeship to authority. Once a keen critic of Hemingway’s shortcomings, he had become the target of humbling attacks himself. In a letter to Helen Meyer of Dell dated March 19, 1971, Jones replied to the drubbing his new novel had taken in the press: “It is interesting to note that Hemingway, who was head-kicked, ball-kicked and rib-kicked by almost all the reviewers who could reach him has now [become the] symbol by which those same reviewers try to measure everyone else” (Hendrick, p. 331). If Bloom’s theory applies, Jones was doing more than merely ridiculing the fickleness of literary fashion. He was also shifting from offense to defense by identifying with Hemingway as an ally in adversity, a fellow victim of unwarranted abuse. Possibly Jones was even taking comfort from the critical turnaround in Hemingway’s reputation as a portent of his own potential rehabilitation. If so, Merry Month of May -- from its ambitious conception to its mixed reception -- furnished the occasion, as Paris had provided the place, where Jones, self-described “Son of Hemingway” (Esquire, December 1963), finally laid to rest the ghost of Papa.
Notes and Bibliography:
¹Don Sackrider recalled Jones telling him that the daughter of Katherine Dunham, the African-American dancer, had seduced several members of the same family while in France, possibly suggesting another facet of Samantha’s character.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Carter, Steven. James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Garrett, George. James Jones. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984.
Giles, James. James Jones. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
“Glimpses: James Jones, 1921-1977,” Paris Review 103 (1987): 205-236.
Harakas, Margo. “James Jones: Aging Novelist Contemplates History’s Closing Verdict,” Fort Lauderdale Sun- Sentinel, February 25, 1975.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Hendrick, George, editor. To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones. New York: Random House, 1989.Jones, James. “Creativity and Mental Health,” n.p., June 3, 1975, University of Texas.- - -. “Letter Home: Sons of Hemingway,” Esquire 60 (December 1963): 28, 30, 34, 40, 44.- - -. The Merry Month of May. New York: Dell, 1985.Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.Morris, Willie. James Jones: A Friendship. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.Shepherd, Allen. “James Jones,” Dictionary of Literary Biography 143: 51-70.Theodoracopulos, Taki. “Beware of Greeks,” National Review (1995), reprinted in The James Jones Literary Society Newsletter 5:2 (Spring 1996): 3.