A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway
“To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Hemingway is one of those authors that a book geek feels she should certainly read at some point in her life. For a long time I didn’t really care to try, and then, when I began to consider it, I had built up such high expectations for him that I feared I’d be disappointed. But in the past few months I’ve begun to reconsider, and the Fall Readathon seemed a perfect opportunity to give Hemingway a try. Rather than dive into a novel, though, I opted to start with his memoir of the days in Paris, France, during the early 1920s.
A Moveable Feast is Ernest Hemingway’s (supposedly true) recollection of walking the streets, writing in the cafés, and visiting with the artists living and working in the city of Paris from 1921-26. The city was full of artists – both famous and soon-to-be – and Feast features reminiscences of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and (my favorite) F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as commentary on Pablo Picasso, Karen Blixen, and “the Russians” (Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi), to name a few. But the bulk of Hemingway’s writing is personal reflection on being a poor, mostly unpublished writer living in an artist’s paradise while trying to support a wife and young child. Reading A Moveable Feast is like taking a long walk through the alleyways of Paris with a mesmerizing guide. And that’s what has now made me a fan of Papa Hemingway.
The criticism I’ve always heard about him is how rambling and unfocused his writing can be. That’s exactly what I loved the most! Reading Hemingway is like listening to a great storyteller share thoughts off the cuff with no self-editing and no worries over a person’s understanding. He simply wrote what he felt and what he wanted to say, and he expected the audience to find him. Again and again in Feast, he stated how compromising to the art it was for a writer to tailor his work for a publication. He specifically criticized Fitzgerald for rewriting stories to suit a publisher’s audience. To Hemingway, this was the greatest sin for an artist. Although, he went hungry most of his days in Paris, while Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived the high life, so who’s to say which is the better choice? What I do know is that Hemingway’s artistic integrity is apparent in his writing style, and I was smitten with that style in just a few short pages of Feast.
He was also a masterful teacher, and much of his commentary in the book pertains to his own writing habits. I soaked those sections up as best I could and marked them for future reference. In fact, I bookmarked many passages as I read A Moveable Feast, and there were entire chapters that captivated me, as well. I’ll share only a few of these passages here – including a great lot about Fitzgerald since my eyes were opened to him a bit more – but I must say that this slim book is a must read for readers and writers alike. Whether you enjoy Hemingway or not, A Moveable Feast is a beautiful rendering of a glorious time in history. And, if nothing else, it will make you fall in love with the Paris that was and the Paris that is.
I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day. — “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel”
It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little [mandarines] into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. YOu have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline. — “Miss Stein Instructs”
At the time the Dial, an American literary magazine edited by Scofield Thayer, gave an annual award of, I believe, a thousand dollars for excellence in the practice of letters by a contributor. This was a huge sum for any straight writer to receive in those days, in addition to the prestige, and the award had gone to various people, all deserving, naturally. Two people, then, could live comfortable and well in Europe on five dollars a day and could travel. — “The Man Who Was Marked for Death”
I was very curious to see [Scott Fitzgerald] and I had been working very hard all day. Scott did not stop talking once and since I was embarrassed by what he said – it was all about my writing and how great it was – I kept on looking at him closely and noticed instead of listening.
Until then I had felt that what a great writer I was had been carefully kept secret between myself and my wife and only those people we knew well enough to speak to. I was glad Scott had come to the same happy conclusion as to this possible greatness, but I was also glad he was beginning to run out of the speech. But after the speech came the question period. You could study him and neglect to follow the speech, but the questions were inescapable. Scott, I was to find, believed that the novelist could find out what he needed to know by direct questioning of his friends and acquaintances. The interrogation was direct.
I wondered if he gave everyone the speech, but I didn’t think so because I had watched him sweat while he was making it. The sweat had come out on his long, perfect Irish upper lip in tiny drops, and that was when I had looked down away from his face and checked on the length of his legs, drawn up as he sat on the bar stool. I saw that he had very short legs. With normal legs he would have been perhaps two inches taller.
He asked me why I liked this café and I told him about it in the old days and he began to try to like it too and we sat there, me liking it and he trying to like it, and he asked questions and told me about writers and publishers and agents and critics and George Horace Lorimer, and the gossip and economics of being a successful writer, and he was cynical and funny and very jolly and charming and endearing, even if you were careful about anyone become endearing. He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his knew book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of past books. He wanted me to read the new book, The Great Gatsby, as soon as he could get his last and only copy back from someone he had loaned it to. To hear him talk of it, you would never know how very good it was, except that he had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine, and I hoped he would get the book quickly so that I might read it. — “Scott Fitzgerald” (partially rearranged)
I was enthusiastic about [taking a trip with Fitzgerald]. I would have the company of an older and successful writer, and in the time we would have to talk in the car I would certainly learn much that it would be useful to know. It is strange now to remember thinking of Scott as an older writer, but at the time, since I had not yet read The Great Gatsby, I thought of him as a much older writer. I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring. He said it was whoring but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent. Since he wrote the real story first, he said, the destruction and changing of it that he did at the end did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel. 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. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.
A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked like the dust jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.
When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know [that the struggle with alcohol] was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend. He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew. But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not. If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. — “Scott Fitzgerald”
I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.
“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”
“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”
“Write the best story that you can and rewrite it as straight as you can.”
“I’m going to,” he said.
He was very difficult all that fall but he had begun to work on a novel when he was sober. I saw him rarely when he was sober, but when he was sober he was always pleasant and he still made jokes and sometimes he would still make jokes about himself. But when he was drunk he would usually come to find me and, drunk, he took almost as much pleasure interfering with my work as Zelda did interfering with his. This continued for years but, for years too, I had no more loyal friend than Scott when he was sober. — “Hawks Do Not Share”
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