Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Over the years I had been vaguely aware of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir about Paris in the 1920's but the book really entered my consciousness in November 2015 after a series of terrorist bombings had taken place in Paris leaving many dead and wounded.  The people of Paris were devastated and a few weeks later I learned that A Moveable Feast had risen to the top of the bestseller list in France.  As someone once said books will be there for you when you need them and the people of Paris in a spirit of solidarity were reading Hemingway's classic ode to their city and finding strength. And so this year I decided to choose A Moveable Feast published in 1964 for the Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a new author.

A Moveable Feast is a memoir by Ernest Hemingway about his life in the 1920's when he was living in Paris with his first wife Hadley Richardson and their young son. The Hemingways could have lived anywhere in Europe but they chose Paris because at that time it was the gathering place of some of the great writers and painters of the 20th century. 

Ernest and his wife Hadley were poor but Hemingway makes clear it was one of the happiest times in his life. He describes the cafes where he would do his writing, the boulevards he walked down, his trips to the race track which though the book doesn't say so sounds like a bit of an addiction and even more so the wine consumption. 

Hemingway also writes about the people he knew in Paris, his friends and fellow ex-pat writers who would come to be known as The Lost Generation:  Sylvia Beach who ran the legendary Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and of whom Hemingway writes " She was kind, cheerful and interested and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I ever knew was nicer to me".  

There was Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who often had the Hemingways and other writers over for dinner to discuss art and literature.  Paris back then was a place where you never knew who you could run into.  James Joyce and his wife Nora, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot stopping by one's cafe table to chat. Wyndham Lewis,, Sherwood Anderson and of course the Fitzgeralds who have their own chapter in this memoir.  Hemingway writes that he could already see the effects alcohol was having on Scott and rather harshly puts the blame on Zelda:

"Zelda was jealous of Scott's work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern.  Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly.  He would start to work and as soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party"

That was the image many had of Zelda Fitzgerald up until Nancy Mitford's ground breaking book Zelda  published in 1970.  But now that image has changed.  There are now allegations that Scott was very contemptuous of Zelda's writing and the more serious charge that he may have lifted portions of Zelda's journals into his own novels.

But I digress.  If Hemingway is harsh towards Zelda he presents Hadley Richardson, his first wife, in very loving terms tinged with regret.  He writes for example of the poverty they endured during those Paris years 

"I knew how severe things had been and how bad things had been.  The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers ... My wife had never complained once about these things ... I had been stupid when she needed a grey lamb jacket and had loved it once she bought it.  I had been stupid about other things too".

A Moveable Feast is not on the same level as Ernest Hemingway's novels.  His talent was for fiction not memoir.  But I am glad I read this book because it's good to know something about an author before you tackle their great works and in A Moveable Feast and also the recent documentary about his life I learned a great deal about Hemmingway.  He was not the hard liquor, big game hunting, ready to duke it out with his fists caricature I had grown up with.  There was more to the man than that.