I read somewhere that A Moveable Feast is selling quite well in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks, but I think that group of readers will be disappointed.
A Moveable Feast could be set in any city with lots of cafes. It really doesn’t have much to do with Paris at all.
My partner C.J. spent his high school years in Madrid under Franco. His father was working for Bechtel at the time building Spain a new airport. C.J. tells me that the ex-pats in Spain either spent all of their time with other ex-pats or all of their time with the Spanish. No one ever did both. Everyone in his family spent their time with ex-pats and ended up getting Christmas cards from all over the world for many years afterwards, except for one of his brothers who spent all of his time with Spanish people and can still speak the language fluently over 40 years later.
Hemingway spent all of his time in Paris with ex-pats, writers and artists, learning how to write well. The only French people in the book are waiters and a car mechanic. There’s lots of food in the book. Lots of food.
As a memoir of writers living in Paris in the 1920’s A Moveable Feast is interesting enough. It’s entertaining, a little illuminating and a little frustrating. This is the third time I’ve read the book, but the first my under-graduate days.
It’s not one of Hemingway’s best, not by a long shot. For the record, yes, I have read them all. Did it for a wonderful undergraduate class in a single semester, fall 1982. Freshman year. Got 5 units for it, too, since the reading list was so long. For years afterwards the final line of A Sun Also Rises was my ultimate measure of great writing. Isn’t it pretty to think so. That ending slayed me, still does. No one ever broke my heart like Hemingway did.
Hemingway gets a lot of grief these days for his sexism. Deservedly so. He was sexist. I’m not going to defend him on that count. But one reason why we know this about him is that he is so bravely honest in his writing. He is one writer who is entirely there, on the page before you. I’m often shocked by what he is willing to reveal about himself. I wouldn’t do it.
There are two very painful scenes in A Moveable Feast for me, the opening scene with Gertrude Stein and the final scene with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Reading the book this time around I was struck by how awfully sexist and homophobic Gertrude Stein was. When the two of them discuss gay (my word) men Hemingway reveals that he carried a knife to protect himself from unwanted advances during his youth when he rode the rails as a hobo while Gertrude Stein makes a long speech about how homosexual men can never find happiness with each other because they are so disgusted by the sex they have.
So, at first, while a little disgusted with both of them, I was thinking Gertrude Stein deserves much more ire for her homophobia than Hemingway does. And the way she relegates all of the wives to the kitchen when she has her famous literary/artist parties marks her as just as sexist as Hemingway in my book. Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, even complains about this to Hemingway later in the memoir.
So why does he feel it’s necessary to include that scene between Gertrude Stein and, I assume, Alice B. Toklas (though she is never named). The one where he comes into their apartment unawares and overhears Stein begging Toklas to take pity on her.
Don’t, Pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it.
After this, he basically cuts Gertrude Stein from his life having lost all respect for her. They meet a few more times, reconstruct a sort of friendship, but their close mentor/pupil bond is severed.
It’s even worse than the bit with F. Scott Fitzgerald towards the end when Scott tells Hemingway that his wife Zelda complains he does not measure up. Zelda is the only woman Fitzgerald has ever been with, at this point in his life, so he has no way of knowing if she is telling the truth except to compare himself to statues in the Louvre. Hemingway takes Fitzgerald into the cafe’s restroom to see for himself and informs Fitzgerald that he is as normal as any man.
Since we read Hemingway’s writing in chronological order, back in that undergraduate class I mentioned, this scene came towards the end of our reading making it feel like a betrayal. How could you write this about your good friend? I’m still a bit disgusted by it, though not as much as I was by the Gertrude Stein scene. Why not just take the little piece of knowledge to the grave where it belongs?
Hemingway follows this cafe scene with another set years later. This scene broke my heart a little redeeming Hemingway and A Moveable Feast a bit.
Many years later at the Ritz bar, long after the end of the World War II, Georges, who is the bar chief now and who was the chasseur when Scott lived in Paris, asked me, “Papa, who was this Monsieur Fitzgerald that everyone asks me about?
“Didn’t you know him?”
“No, I remember all of the people of that time. But now they ask me only about him?”
“What do you tell them?”
“Anything interesting that they wish to hear. What will please them. But tell me, who was he?”
“He was an American writer of the early Twenties and later who lived some time in Paris and abroad.”
“But why would I not remember him? Was he a good writer?”
“He wrote two very good books and one which was not completed which those who know his writing best say would have been very good. He also wrote some good short stories.”
“Did he frequent the bar much?”
“I believe so.”
That the bar tender who remembers everyone cannot recall Fitzgerald is something that touched me. That Hemingway writes this scene without embellishment or narration makes it all the more powerful.
But he is not at his best throughout A Moveable Feast. Quite a few times I felt he was talking down to the reader approaching the point of self parody. Writing like Hemingway can work very well, but you have to do it well. Not even Hemingway did it well all the time.
I should have marked the book as I read because I’m sure I had a better example but this passage may show what I mean.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.
Well, whatever. Good for you Ernest.
So, except for the scene with the waiter above, I was not all that impressed with A Moveable Feast. Second rate Hemingway at best; just a lot of little anecdotes about famous people he met; nothing worth while.
Until the very last page of the book, when Hemingway is returning to his wife, Hadley, and his young son whom they call Mr. Bumbly. He has left Paris where he is having an affair with the women he will leave Hadley for when he sees them at the station as the train arrives:
When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully, and Mr. Bumbly standing with her, blond and chunky and with winter cheeks looking like a good Vorarlberg boy.
“I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Damn if Hemingway still can’t break my heart like no one else. Even mediocre Hemingway like A Moveable Feast.