A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway…A feast, indeed.
It gets harder to reread books as I get older, I’ve found. As a teen and in my twenties I read and reread books over and over again- up to 3 times or more. But now, I don’t find the same joy the second time around when I revisit a novel. Not so with A Moveable Feast. I think I read the book for the first time only a handful of years ago, and I liked it. I reread it for a Reading Challenge that I’m finishing up from winter 2014 and thought it an absolute delight. I found new themes and passages I don’t even recall reading before. Was I in a fog when I first read it? I do know that I was going through an extremely bad spell at my old job. Perhaps the book just didn’t resonate back then.
Hemingway is difficult to enjoy. I completely understand why someone doesn’t “get” Hemingway. His prose is sometimes stilted and there doesn’t immediately appear to be any point or through line to his writing. His short and precise sentences can easily be mistaken for those of an amateur, and no one can ever accuse Hemingway of “showy” writing. I am, by no means, a Hemingway expert. I’ve only read three of his novels: The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Moveable Feast, now twice. For Whom was a slog to complete, although in the end I found the novel haunting and emotionally rich. The Sun… was one of my favorite novels in my early twenties. While in France on a year abroad, I gave a short presentation on the novel for one of my French classes and declared the book one of the best I’d ever read. The professor wrinkled her nose and asked “Why??!!”.
But his gift is for creating “the truest sentence there is”. Hemingway strove to deliver stories and novels that spoke to simple truths. He believed florid and overly descriptive writing danced around the truth. I wonder if A Moveable Feast is his most honest work. However, I do believe that the honesty and simplicity in his writing is what turns most people off. He’s a storyteller, but he’s not a showman. When you compare his writing to that of Fitzgerald’s, his contemporary and also featured in A Moveable Feast, there is a striking difference in styles. Fitzgerald’s work is vivid and colorful while Hemingway’s is earthy and stark. The Great Gatsby, a book I also reread in 2014 and loved anew, is wonderful. It’s a feast in its own right, but it does make Hemingway’s work look plain by comparison. There are parallels to draw with both authors, however. I can’t say which writer is better; they speak of truths in their own ways.
Here is an example in A Moveable Feast of a delightfully truthful statement:
When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.
What an opening paragraph, and only 3 sentences! Everyone has experienced that one “perfect day” that occurs right at the end of winter. The weather is neither cool nor hot, and flowers start to bloom. Folks stroll outside, holding hands, with a careless ease for the first time in months. Life seems limitless and good. And you don’t want to run errands or meet friends for drinks or be indoors in any way. You want to enjoy the sunshine and the warmth and the beginnings of something. I’ve felt this, have you? He captures that sentimentality without all of the fluffy adverbs and over explaining. I know exactly what he means. He captured a mood in its most simplistic form. This is truth.
What I most enjoyed about the novel this time around that I didn’t particularly catch on the first read, is that Hemingway is writing about becoming the author Ernest Hemingway as we know him. Written only a few years before his death and published just before he died, this is a nostalgic novel. He’s writing as though he is a young man just learning his style. Paris is his muse. I’d like to believe he looks back on this period with extreme fondness- it’s the beginning of something, which he is writing about towards the end of his career and life.
And I encourage everyone to also read Paula McLain’s wonderful The Paris Wife, which is a fictional account of Hem’s wife Hadley during their Paris years. On my first read I thought Hadley had gotten such short shrift. She’s barely in A Moveable Feast, this is true, but on my second turn I found her evermore present within the pages. Apparently she and Hemingway were on friendly terms right before he died. Perhaps this is also his small love letter to her, or perhaps not, but I was moved much more by their relationship on this read.
His experiences with F. Scott Fitzgerald were also more vivid on the second read. When I opened my used copy of the novel, I noticed this inscription, written in ink, that I hadn’t seen the first time:
Ward- Maybe you’ll identify with Fitzgerald.
Maybe Ward was using this book as an intervention? I have no idea what he really means, but I had to laugh. Fitzgerald is portrayed by Hemingway as a complete mess- talented, yes- yet on the verge of becoming a full-fledged alcoholic with a less than sane wife. Hemingway supposedly locked heads with Zelda Fitzgerald on more than a few occasions and you do get the sense that he doesn’t like her here. But you also get a sense of his admiration of Fitzgerald and perhaps even envy. Maybe this jealousy pushed him into becoming a novelist, rather than a short story writer? In my reread, I thought his relationship with Fitzgerald was fraught with boyhood rivalry, but there was a tender almost loving way in which Hemingway cared for and encouraged Fitzgerald. Is he feeling guilty in his later years that he didn’t do more? Fitzgerald obviously plays a very prominent role in Hem’s life, otherwise he wouldn’t get a whole section devoted to him.
The title of the book and the opening quote are my favorite:
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 feat.
Hemingway and his wife Hadley are dead broke in Paris, but never hungry, neither physically nor emotionally. And Hemingway is never lacking for stories. Paris feeds him. Throughout the entire novel he is almost never sitting still, unless he is in a cafe writing. He’s either walking along the Seine, skiing in the Alps, visiting Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or striding off to the bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Even when’s he writing there is a sense of movement, as if Paris is passing him by like an old theatre diorama. People he knows and friends filter in and out. The seasons change before his eyes. Delicious food and drink passes before him in an endless array.
Sure, you could make the argument that the novel is not very exciting. And speaking of “very”, for a man who shunned adverbs the word “very” shows up in almost every 4th line. His stroll down memory lane in Paris is leisurely at best. There is no real conflict and if I had to make a complaint, I say that his breakup with Hadley could have been explored with more depth. She drifts away in the last chapter and is replaced by his second wife with only a small explanation. This is also why The Paris Wife makes such a good companion piece to the novel: we get to see the before and after and all the in-betweens of their relationship, which is missing from A Moveable Feast.
But again, this novel is about Hemingway the author finding his voice and his place in the world as a writer, not about the breakup of his marriage. I admire that although A Moveable Feast is somewhat of a memoir it does not have the trappings of a linear account of his life from point A to point B. It is clear that Paris remained a magical time in his life for many years. I, too, have felt the magical pull of France. Having lived in Bordeaux for a year in college and returning to France only 3 years ago, it still holds an almost mystic and revered place in my heart.
I hope that the mysterious “John” didn’t take offense to Ward’s gift of this book. I hope he took away some of the lightness and wonder from it that I did, all of Fitzgerald’s heavy drinking and Hemingway’s womanizing aside. I think it’s a novel that gets better with age and experience.
And if I ever need to go back to Paris, I don’t need to travel far. I just need to open a book.