I read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway for the first time about 15 years ago. On a grey, rainy day, I walked into Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore near Hunter College in NYC, and asked the bookseller for a recommendation. After a brief discussion about my tastes and preferences, she said, “Oh, I know! I have the perfect book for you.” She quickly found the book and handed it to me as if she were presenting the keys to the literary kingdom. That Shakespeare and Company played such a huge prominence in A Moveable Feast, and in Hemingway’s life, I had no way of knowing at the time.
Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast is a memoir which recounts his struggling years in 1920s Paris as young, poor writer. But it’s more than a memoir; it’s an intricate love letter to the magical Paris of the 1920’s; a window into the intimate, personal lives of the luminaries of his time – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and is wife Zelda. And at its most private, heartfelt moments, it’s a first-person account of his relationship with his first wife Hadley; of living well in poverty on his meager earnings and working on his novel in the Left Bank. It’s a writer’s manual; a gossip rag; an ode to simple joys and human imperfections. It’s also a sentimental diary which ends with this bittersweet note:
“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
I recently reread my old copy of A Moveable Feast (not the new edition of 2009 sadly, which has added material) and I’d forgotten about Hemingway’s simplicity and economy of word. And while this book is about many things, one thing is constant: His love for his first wife Hadley. As readers from the future, we know better, yet we can’t imagine a couple more in love. At the same time, she’s depicted as one dimensional – always agreeable, yet incomplete, always in the background waiting for him. Any mention of Hadley is surely positive, and one must wonder if this was his form of an apology.
Of the many great vignettes in this memoir, the true beauty really lies in his insight into human behavior, simple observations and also, his sometimes glaring pettiness and homophobia. What were Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice arguing about? Hemingway forces the reader to use their imagination and fill in the blanks, but also gives the effect of his personal disdain of them. The argument doesn’t really matter, we can never really know what makes people do the things they do, but it served as a reason for Hemingway to acknowledge Gertrude was not a god, but a mere mortal like him. According to him, he saw her hypocrisy (and was not happy about it) and needed to move on, but not before fulfilling his social obligations to her, making the few last “necessary appearances,” and slowly watching her become more and more disagreeable with everyone she knew. He notes, with cruelty:
“Finally she even quarreled with the new friends but none of us followed it any more. She got to look like a Roman emperor and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors. But Picasso had painted her, and I could remember her when she looked like a woman from Fruili.
In the end everyone, or not quite everyone, made friends again in order not to be stuffy or righteous. I did too. But I could never makes friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head. When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst. But it was more complicated than that.”
That Hemingway could often be cruel is no surprise, he was notoriously thin-skinned and used real people as characters in his books and didn’t try to hide it. That he could be this cruel and dismissive of Stein’s talents, however, shows a level of pettiness and a break in the smooth facade of his distant, dreamy Parisian life. But, we also know at the time of this writing, Hemingway was not doing his best. He wrote this towards the end of his life, and as we know now, he was suffering from depression.
Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were good friends in Paris, but later in life became desperate enemies. From the late 1930’s on, Hemingway lost no opportunity to badmouth him, going as far to tell Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald’s biographer, in a letter from 1950, “I never had any respect for him ever, except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent. If he would have had fewer pompous musings and a little sounder education it would have been better maybe. But anytime you got him all straightened out and taking his work seriously Zelda would get jealous and knock him out of it.” This doesn’t sound like your old warm, drinking friend from Paris, does it, F. Scott? It doesn’t to us either.
Interestingly, the letters between Hemingway and Mizener in which Hemingway describes F. Scott Fitzgerald were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1972 at Mizener’s request. You can see the archived October 25, 1972 NY Times article describing the letters and the sale in the link below. You can read the full text and also see an archived photo of the pages via the NY TimesMachine. It’s chock full of 1972 movie advertisements, including ones for Alan Arkin and Super Fly. It’s paywalled, but it’s a really fun window into the past and very much worth your time.
At the time Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast, it certainly sounded like he hated Fitzgerald. But honestly, there’s no way for us to know and there’s peace in the ambiguity of not knowing. For some added confusion, also from A Moveable Feast, is this beautiful, sensitive, lone paragraph (an epitaph?) which opens the chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald:
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because of the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.
Was this an apology? Did he hate Fitzgerald for wasting his talents? And did it torture him, so many years later? As it often goes, when you look back on your life, things are misremembered, things are misunderstood, glasses the color of rose are often the lens by which we view the past. Hemingway started writing this memoir in 1957, 30 years after his time in Paris, and A Moveable Feast was not complete when he committed suicide in July of 1961. What he wrote seems to be a last ditch effort to get back at old nemeses for insulting his genius or because they were awful; to pay homage to people and above all, to try to be kind on the page when he couldn’t manage it in real life, all the while forgetting the part he played in his own history. That doesn’t make it less enjoyable or less fascinating to read. People of all ages flock to this book and it’s still popular 50 years later because of its timeless writing, Hemingway’s sensitivity and also, let’s be honest, the gossip is delightful. But like most books we read, it’s hard to trust the narrator. In this case, however, that doesn’t really bother us all that much. After all, the point he’s trying to convey is, as Hemingway says, “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 feast.”