Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’ – review part I

PART ONE (of two)

A Moveable Feast  (Vintage, London, 2000; first published
England and the US by Scribners, 1964) begins with this epigraph:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

Hemingway with his second wife Pauline, Paris 1927 (photo: WikiCommons)

The words were apparently addressed to Hemingway by his friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner.   The title has a Christian liturgical origin (Easter being the most notable example). Having converted to Catholicism shortly before marrying his second wife, Pauline, who came from an Arkansas Catholic family, Hemingway may have chosen this phrase because it resonates with her faith and his relationship with her – she appears only in the final few pages – rather than with his first wife, Hadley, who inhabits the rest of the story.  Given his tendency to abandon his wives before they dumped him (possibly a consequence of his painful experience of being dropped by Agnes von Kurowsky in Italy, 1919 – he based his character Catherine on her in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms) this seems a little disingenuous.

Hemingway (1899-1961) placed this epigraph at the head of A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris 1921-26 with Hadley.   In 1928 he had deposited many of his notebooks and papers containing his record of his sojourn in the city in two trunks in the basement of the Paris Ritz, and did not reclaim them until 1956.  According to a note in the text by his fourth wife Mary, who edited the manuscript after his death, he started work on what became A Moveable Feast in Cuba in late 1957, and continued working on it in America and Cuba again for two more years.  He finished it in 1960, but continued making revisions to the text.  It was published three years after his death in 1964 by Scribners of New York.  I have not yet read the revised edition published in 2009 by his grandson Sean.

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 (Wiki)

Hemingway, Hadley and Bumby in Schruns, Austria, 1925 or early 1926 – interesting body language (WikiCommons)

I don’t find Hemingway the most likeable of characters.  He enjoyed big-game hunting and fishing, bullfights, boxing and projected a macho image of himself.  This book is highly engaging, however, mostly for its gossipy anecdotes about the expat writers and artists of ‘the Lost Generation’ in post-war Paris, and his lucid descriptions of living in the poorer quarters with Hadley and baby John (always known as Bumby, who was born in 1923), as a struggling young writer: ‘Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container’.  ‘Hunger was a good discipline’ is the title of one chapter, in which he claims he often skipped meals, taking circuitous rambles along routes that deliberately avoided restaurants or food shops.  He tells how they struggled to afford firewood, which had to be carefully rationed, as their food was.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

Hemingway in dashing bohemian pose, Paris, 1924 (JFK Library, via WikiCommons)

The picture of 20s Paris is delightful, if romantically fictionalised: goatherds drive their flocks through the city selling milk.   There’s an awful lot of description of meals taken on the rare occasions when they were in funds (often from winning after serious gambling at the horse race track), when they’d happily splurge in expensive restaurants.  But he paints a picture of life with Hadley in near squalor as happy and glowing in the warmth of their idyllic love, as this typically breathless sentence shows, with its characteristic paratactic syntax and patterned repetitions:

Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.

All of this is cast away at the end of the book when Hemingway callously embarks on an affair with their mutual friend Pauline.  He and Hadley divorced in 1927.  I’ll return to this rather unedifying finale to the book in Part II of this review: link HERE. For a link to my review of Paula McLain’s fictional treatment of the marriage of Hemingway and Hadley, The Paris Wife, click here

Although the poverty he claims that he and Hadley endured during the period covered by the book has subsequently been questioned by scholars, it does make for a fascinating narrative of bohemian, artistic Latin Quarter life in the 20s, well told by a master craftsman.

Buffalo velodrome 1905
Buffalo velodrome 1905

 

The book is teeming with carefully observed details, like the vivid description of the Belgian cycling ace, Linart,  zooming round the banked track at the Stade Buffalo, the velodrome at Montrouge, ‘dropping his head to drink cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed.’

Fitzgerald's picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

Fitzgerald’s picture at the Bar Hemingway, Paris Ritz

There are twenty short chapters (the book is only 182 pages long), mostly of only three or four pages; several of the most intriguing feature F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom he is presented as having a curious love-hate relationship.  In the longest chapter in the book we see the moment when they first met, in 1925, shortly after The Great Gatsby had been published – a novel Hemingway admired – in a café, of course (most of the narrative in this book takes place in cafés or restaurants; that’s where the artistic set lived, worked and socialised) – Hemingway reports how Fitzgerald abruptly asked him if he’d slept with his wife before marriage; with Hemingway’s usual tough-guy brevity and sardonic coolness he replies:

‘I don’t remember.’

‘But how can you not remember something of such importance?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’…

‘Don’t talk like some limey,’ he said.

Fitzgerald then turned deathly pale, and Hemingway had to help him home.  He’s convinced that Fitzgerald was as heavy a drinker as he was, but is typically scornful that he couldn’t hold his drink as well as Hemingway himself says he does.  He also upbraids Fitzgerald for ‘whoring’ his talent by shaping and revising his stories to suit the lucrative magazine market, and portrays himself in the rather flattering light he favours:

I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent…Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do.

In an earlier chapter he says revealingly (if not exactly modestly) of his vocation: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.’  When Fitzgerald tells him Gatsby isn’t selling and that he has to write stories that will sell, Hemingway bluntly replies: ‘Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.’

He puts this into practice in nearly all of his best writing, including in A Moveable Feast, saying how he’d throw away anything ‘elaborate’, any ‘scrollwork or ornament’.  He relates his ‘new theory’ for short story writing:

[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

This book is also written in this trademark style: short, unadorned declarative sentences with few adjectives and largely simple vocabulary.  At their best these sentences are inimitably beautiful.  But what a shame Hem makes it so clear that he thinks so, too…

PART TWO link here: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and others