A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Some people don’t like Hemingway. I always think those people are a little off.

How can you possibly not like Hemingway?

Besides the blatant sexism, the topics of hunting and fishing and war and other traditionally manly occupations, the drunkenness, the infidelity, and, oh yeah, did I mention the somewhat condescending portrayal of women that makes us all seem like we are love-starved, empty-headed, obsessed with trivial things, and incapable of expressing ourselves with any logic or reason?

Those are all the reasons I could see not liking Hemingway.

But, conversely, those are all the reasons I do like him. Especially A Moveable Feast.

This is the book of memoirs Hemingway wrote about his time in Paris in the 1920’s. The story goes that he created the book out of the journals he kept while he was practicing being a poor, struggling writer in Paris. When he shot himself in 1961, his wife (according to Hemingway’s wishes)  took the journals and edited them into A Moveable Feast. The book includes specific cafes he went to, apartments he lived in, people he hung out with – and truly – for me anyway – because of all the literary name-dropping that goes on – it makes for a fascinating read.

I read it for the first time while I was in Paris for two weeks in June of 2003 and there was no better place or way to be introduced to it. I stayed in a hostel that was a few blocks from the apartment he writes about in the beginning of the book. 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the 5th arrondissement is a building with a blue door; and a sign above it in faded french gives you the author’s name and the dates he lived. Ernest Hemingway 1899 to 1961.

Every day I walked from the top of rue Mouffetard to Notre Dame and the river. Perching myself one of the ancient bridges – or on a wooden bench near the cathedral – or even a shallow step of the stone quais, I proceeded to write down reflections about my life in an slightly exasperated way.

I was all alone in Paris – having bought the ticket and got on a plane with a crazy, driving desire to be alone – to be away from everyone – to be invisible in a strange city – in a strange country – where no one would speak to me or, if they did, chances were I wouldn’t know their language and therefore would not have to tell them anything about me.

The obstacle of language seemed to be the key to what I was doing there. I was so weary of myself and other people’s vision of me – so tired of explaining myself to the world – even the vague loneliness I felt was a relief compared to being home, exposed to expectations and demands I just didn’t have the energy for any longer.  I wanted to be silent. To hear myself think.

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

…a part I underlined heavily in A Moveable Feast. It says something of Paris, and something of what I felt when I sat there – writing.

Hemingway was shell-shocked from WWI when he went to Paris in 1921. While he was there he hung around some of the best writers of that era. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pascin, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford,and James Joyce to name a few. Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Co., was the friend who lent the financially strapped Ernest books to read.

The book is not always pretty (the weird account of Stein’s view on male homosexuality and the equally weird way her partner played the wife when they had company is kinda’ disturbing) but it is also interesting, funny and poetic at times.

There are insights into Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship, lovely descriptions of the streets and parks and cafes of Paris, a reference to Stein giving him the term “Lost Generation” which he later made famous in his book The Sun Also Rises, a vague account of his affair with another woman or two (or three?) and the guilt he felt over this.

If you have never read any Hemingway, the book is great way to get familiar with his writing. He is famous for his simple prose and style. It takes some getting used to. Sometimes he sounds like a man who’s second language is English. Sometimes it reads like “Jane saw the ball. Run Jane, run” but then – when you aren’t looking – he’ll come out with this crazy, beautiful sentence and it blows your mind.

And if you should be so lucky to read it in Paris, make sure you spend at least one day at the Shakespeare Book Company. Upstairs in the little room that looks over the river Siene to Notre Dame, is a faded and well-worn yellow desk chair where Hemingway once sat and wrote.

Here is my favorite excerpt from the book. It talks about being hungry and poor in Paris and going to the museums to see the art, which will fill your soul and make you forget your hunger.

(This one’s for you, Michael Woods from Boston-by-way-of-The-Lake-District. If anything, my reading A Moveable Feast was your idea. Thanks for the beautiful talk we had under the Eiffel Tower.)

Excerpt:

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cezanne was probably hungry in a different way.

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Filed under Autobiography, History, Literature

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