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A Moveable Feast

by Ernest Hemingway

The odd thing about A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's posthumous memoir of 1920s Paris, is that while real people populate its landscape — Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald — they all talk like characters in a Hemingway story. Suddenly one realizes the difference between the world and Hemingway's art. People don't really talk like they talk in Hemingway's stories, do they? Did they? That vagueness? Those short, staccato sentences? "I didn't mean about the racing. You're such a literal boy. I meant lucky other ways." That's Hemingway's wife. Here's F. Scott Fitzgerald. "It was a very comfortable train and we might just as well have come down together."

The book itself is put together extremely well. The chapters are about specific subjects — either people or places — but the book moves along chronologically: from his poor days in Paris when he had given up journalism and struggled with the discipline necessary to write stories, to a kind of post-The Sun Also Rises triumphant sadness. Melancholy infuses the text. One imagines the older Hemingway (in Idaho?) missing his earlier, happier days. A certain moment seems starkly nostalgic even as it happens. In the chapter "A False Spring" he writes about happiness:

In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept. The windows were open wide and the cobbles on the street were drying after the rain. The sun was drying the wet faces of the houses that faced the window.

Such freshness in those simple sentences! Such possibilities! There's youth there. I get sad just thinking about it, as if he were describing a life I could have led but didn't. By the end of this chapter, something degenerates. He and his wife bet on the horses at the racetrack and do very well, and have a very nice day, but something seems irreparably lost. The day? Some aspect of their love? The fact that he should have spent the day — which began with such fresh possibilities — writing? It recalls the line later in the memoir, ""..I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life..."

Hemingway doesn't just drop the horseracing at the end of this chapter either. In other chapters, he returns to it even as it degenerates. He goes to the tracks by himself, and then he's fighting the gambling beast, and then he comes to know the horses and their trainers, and he comes to know which horses have been injected with stimulants and so his betting improves, and it's all so sordid and wasteful that eventually he shrugs it off and goes back to his life. This movement is subtle within the texture of the memoir and all the more powerful as a result.

Ezra Pound's reputation is improved here. He comes off as a semi-saint rather than a semi-Fascist. Ford Maddox Ford is grotesque. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a great writer worn down by a bitter, jealous wife, who tries to keep him close by disparaging his manhood. "Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make a woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements." Hemingway takes him to the loo and proclaims him perfectly fine. The reader then gets this odd scene of Hemingway instructing Fitzgerald on sexual technique:

"It is not basically a question of the size in repose," I said. "It is the size that it becomes." It is also a question of angle." I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be very useful for him to know.

Hemingway gets in good digs at the ladies. Gertrude Stein, one of the patron saints of the women's movement, is here a woman who does not talk to wives. She'll talk to Hemingway but not to his wife. That is the job of her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Also, although Hemingway acknowledges a great debt to her, her most famous line — famous for being the epigraph in The Sun Also Rises: "You are all a lost generation" — originated with the patron of a garage who was speaking to one of his mechanics. The patron says it first and Gertrude Stein echoes him and takes it from there. Hemingway also takes apart Katherine Mansfield. "...I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekhov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer."

Then there's that startling scene where Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce share drinks at Le Deux-Magots. To have been a fly on that wall.

It takes some getting used to, reading Hemingway again, particularly his habit of repeating words within the same sentence. One gets the feeling that someone, somewhere, told Hemingway he shouldn't do this, that he should search for a synonym instead, and Hemingway, out of stubbornness, insisted on his own way of writing. Perhaps he's repeating the word because he finds it important? It's so important, he's saying, I'm mucking up this sentence for it.

But, God, he's good. The chapter "With Pascin at the Dome" describes a painter who loves life with a woman on both arms; then, in the last paragraph, Hemingway tells us his fate in by-the-way fashion: "He looked more like a Broadway character of the Nineties than the lovely painter that he was, and afterwards, when he had hanged himself, I liked to remember him as he was that night at the Dome." The effect is startling. The same with a chapter on the Fitzgeralds. Zelda comes off as an annoyance, a clinging bitch, but Hemingway still gets along with her. "I knew everything was all right and was going to turn out well in the end when she leaned forward and said to me, telling me her greatest secret, "Ernest, don't you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?'" Hemingway adds another short paragraph which ends, "Scott did not write anything any more that was good until after he knew that she was insane." It's as if Hemingway is creating portraits of people we may disapprove of, then let's us in on some awful aspect of their fate. We become humbled as a result. We become wary of our quick judgments. We realize what they're worth.

—February 27, 1999

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard