Hemingway’s Paris – A Moveable Feast

Hemingway makes me think of the debate streaming though comment threads on Goodreads.  The debate centres on the issue of discussing an author in book reviews, Goodreads suggesting that reviews focus only on the content of a book and not stray into opinions about the personality or character of the author. Hemingway

Being a book review site, it may not seem like an unreasonable request, except that the site has allowed five years of historical reviews to build up without comment, guidance or reprimand against reviews that may have crossed this line and in the meantime a strong community of reviewers has developed, spreading its roots and reviews deep into the site. Unsurprisingly, the community is now rebelling against wilful deletions of reviews. Some are threatening to abandon the Goodreads ship while its Captain is said to be sailing on oblivious to mutiny in its hold.

I think of Hemingway because in A Moveable Feast, he writes not just about himself, he reflects on writers he was acquainted with in Paris and about life in that city after the First World War. He shares exactly the kind of opinions that are forbidden to reviewers today. However, he is not writing a book review, he is writing about life.

Apart from the delightful short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place, I have not read Hemingway since the trauma of having to study The Old Man and The Sea at school. I am sorry to say that I detested this novel and although nothing of the prose has stayed with me, a kind of nausea, akin to sitting in a rocking boat with no means of rowing it, engulfs me when remembering it. I didn’t understand at the time why I reacted like this, worse than boredom, it was bereft of literary merit according to my 13-year-old standards.

Knowing now of Hemingway’s deliberate intention to strip his prose bare and understanding my love of the metaphor and habit to underline and admire the more descriptive linguistic passages, I see that we are not a good pair. But having met the writer again through the lives of Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z, I was intrigued to read his non-fiction account of life in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

The chapters read like a series of vignettes, encapsulating the many aspects that made up his life during that time. He writes about the cafes he frequented and in particular the plight of two waiters, whom when the new management of the café decides it wants to attract a higher calibre of client, insists his employees shave their mustaches and wear a uniform. Hemingway and friend are poured overfull whiskeys by the waiter and they drink them in protest.

“They’re changing the management.” Evan said. “The new owners want to have a different clientele that will spend some money and they are going to put in an American bar. The waiters are going to be in white jackets, Hem, and they have been ordered to be ready to shave off their mustaches.”

“They can’t do that to André and Jean.”

“They shouldn’t be able to, but they will.”

Jean has had a mustache all his life. That’s a dragoon’s mustache. He served in a cavalry regiment.”

“He’s going to have to cut it off.”

He reflects on his habits as a writer and here we meet a man who was dedicated to his métier above all. He writes about his deliberate strategy to eliminate the adjective, to let the words stand alone without any qualifiers or modifiers, the naked verb. His aim is like the writing equivalent of meditation, de-cluttering the page instead of the mind. He would not have made a great meditator, as he was fearful of emptying the mind.

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

F.Scott.Fitzgerald,1921 Source: Wikipedia

F.Scott.Fitzgerald,1921 Source: Wikipedia

F.Scott Fitzgerald was a good friend. Both chapters that describe events with Fitzgerald show just how erratic his behaviour was and Hemingway suffers from having his writing discipline disrupted on a trip back to Paris from Lyon having recuperated a convertible car Scott and Zelda had abandoned due to the rain.

“I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.”

A Moveable Feast is an excellent read, sharing moments of life in Paris, we are introduced to some of Hemingway’s favourite cafés to write in, his conversations with Gertrude Stein and others about writing, up until he fell out of favour after publishing a mockery of another author’s work which she and others disapproved of, perceiving his act as disloyal to a fellow writer. He becomes a regular at the famous English bookshop Shakespeare & Co, where he is able to lend books, having no money to buy them and reads his way through Turgenev, D.H.Lawrence and Dostoevsky as well as striking up a friendship with the owner Sylvia Beach, a pleasant source of gossip as well as books.

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29 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Paris – A Moveable Feast

  1. I too loved reading A Moveable Feast. I’m not a fan of his prose in general (even if I can appreciate it), but thought that here Hemingway was able to release himself of his stylistic restrictions. You may have already read it, but just in case you haven’t, a good companion read to this is Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

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    • Thanks for the recommendation, I haven’t read Stein’s book, I have read about half of Diana Souhami’s excellent Gertrude and Alice, which I shall eventually finish and add to the jigsaw puzzle of books making up accounts of this so-called lost generation.

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  2. I enjoyed your review of A Moveable Feast which I read it in college and loved. Your review makes me want to get it out again and reread. Like you, I’ve never been a big fan of his novels but I have enjoyed some of his short stories. I too love the metaphor. I lean more toward Faulkner or Woolf than Hemingway in my literary tastes.

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    • I think ,A Moveable Feast is one that inspires a reread, maybe not cover to cover, but being almost like essays, it is good to read extracts. I think I may even take it with me to Paris, it could be good to have on location so to speak. I am interested to read more of his essays on Paris.

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  3. I confess that I haven’t connected with his prose when I tried to read one of his books. “A Moveable Feast” is one that I may enjoy, though. It would be like traveling to the past in Paris to meet other writers. I like the idea!

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    • I think you may enjoy this, quite unconnected to the style of his novels, not that I have read many of them. But this is one to read that makes you feel like being in the company of those who inhabited Paris in the 1920’s, great fun.

      It is also interesting the contrast between them, the Hemingway’s struggled financially, but learned how to live well on very little, while the Fitzgerald’s lived beyond their means, from what I gathered in reading Z and yet they were very good friends. Hemingway and Hadley Richardson headed for the mountains and skiing for holidays while the Fitzgerald’s headed for the Cote d’Azur on the French Riviera. Hemingway stayed out of trouble in the mountains, when he went south, he did so metaphorically in his life as well.

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  4. Hi Claire! I’m so excited to see you write about “A Moveable Feast”. We share a love of 1920’s Paris, and every time you write a review about the era and it’s wonderful writers, it renews my enthusiasm for the subject 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, it’s one of my favorites and I think despite Hemingway’s spare prose, it really is a feast for the senses in every way.

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    • I have been working my way through books of this era and the writers that inhabited Paris at the time, I must read more about the French writers as well and I am looking forward to a visit there at Christmas to become better acquainted with those quartiers they liked to inhabit.

      I think I like Hemingway best when he writes about the city of Paris, it brings out more of his humanity.

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  5. I used to love A Moveable Feast too, until I began reading other writers assessments of it, that it was unreliable and according to writer Paul Johnson, ‘most dangerous when it appears to be frank’… other writers of the period also seem to have a very different slant on the people and events Hemingway wrote of .. a man who called his mother’ that bitch’ until the day she died… Glimpses of him in Anthony Beevor’s history of D-Day, swaggering about with a gun – which as a war correspondent he was not supposed to have, and threatening to torture in order to get information from a captured Frenchman add to my dislike of him !
    PS I loved your thoughts on The Luminaries Claire – meant to reply straight away, but life has caught up on me !

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    • Everyone has their perspective and that’s why it is so interesting to read around the various characters who inhabited Paris at that time. Gertrude and Alice depicts a wonderful couple and side to that duo and yet from Zelda Fitzgeralds point of view it’ s all a bit grim as Gertude put the wives in a different room while she got on to discussing important intellectual business with the men and few women.

      Hemingway has a somewhat skewed image of Zelda and it is left to the imagination as to whether something passed between those two that caused them to be enemies, apart from their mutual connection to F.Scott Fitzgerald of course.

      I’m not at all interested in most of Hemingway’s pursuits, the bullflights, safaris, hunting, fishing, the races, but when he walks along the Seine or visits Gertrude Stein or Sylvia Beach and shows compassion to the waiters of the Parisian cafes, then I enjoy how he transfers those experiences to the page, because there is no need to strip them of all beauty, for how could one view Paris without an adjective.

      He comments on other writers and is not alone in so doing so, however one doesn’t get the feeling that he was intentionally nasty. He was certainly made to suffer for having been perceived as being disloyal to writer friends, but with success would also come an inflated ego and the long term effects of that we might say would lead to his ultimate demise.

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  6. I’m so glad you read this at last, Claire! The only other book of Hemingway’s I’ve read was For Whom The Bell Tolls which I found so bloody and glorifying of violence and all those so-called “manly things” that I abandoned it, and I vowed I’d never try him again . Glad I made an exception for A Moveable Feast.
    I’m sure that Valerie is absolutely right about it not being entirely reliable however I read it as faction – which was what Hemingway intended wasn’t it? In any case it’s the atmosphere and the picture of Paris in the 20’s which he created that stays with me, not his portraits of his fellow writers.

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    • I have tried Hemingway again in short bites of short stories to try and understand what it is that attracts readers, but I doubt I will take on a novel again.

      You are right, the picture of 1920’s Paris he paints is worth reading it for and his comments on writers are just a perspective and it behoves us to read more widely to gain any understanding of the real characters behind the writers. Hemingway’s negative comments about Zelda Fitzgerald could be born out of his love for his friend F.Scott Fitzgerald who had as much of a dependency on alcohol as he did on his wife, whom he needed at his side always, much to her own detriment and mental ill health. I think the comments and gossip add to the picture of life in those days, drama, writing, salons, painters, the whole thing.

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    • I was intrigued by The Sun Also Rises after reading about it in The Paris Wife, given it is based on a visit to Spain to the bullfights by a group of friends, whom he writes into his novel and the petty jealousies of the men all hankering after the same woman. It was interesting that the only person he left out, which I think was to her credit, was his own wife, however she didn’t see it like that of course. It would be hard to read it as fiction, knowing what lies behind it, I think.

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  7. This is a beautifully written post Claire. It’s been forever since I’ve read any of Hemingway ‘s books I’m ashamed to say, except for small study snippets. I’m inspired to take another look at A Moveable Feast again as I have the memory of a goldfish! Thank you!

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  8. Nice review, Claire! Interesting to know about the new Goodreads review policy. I think in principle it is better to focus on a book rather than the writer while reviewing it, but I think this is nearly impossible. I personally feel that reviewers should have more room to explore things in their review and if they want to discuss things about the writer, it is up to them. The only qualifier I can think of is that things shouldn’t get too personal and personal attacks on the writer are not acceptable. I can’t believe that Goodreads is trying to police reviewers now.

    I read Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ a few years back when I wanted to read one Hemingway book after another. I liked very much what you said about your love for rich prose and how Hemingway’s paring down of his prose made his works unappealing to you. I used to love Hemingway once, but now I am not so sure – I like rich prose with lots of adjectives and adverbs now 🙂 Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ when you read it in school. I think I have read only a few short stories by Hemingway when I was in school. I read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, ‘Fiesta : The Sun Also Rises’ and a few others after growing up. I liked all of them. I haven’t read a Hemingway book in a while. I should try reading one of his books again and see whether he is still a favourite.

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  9. I’ll read your reviews any day over those on Goodreads. 🙂

    This review, and I’m going to speak of the author here – you – is full of passion in response to the mentioned debate and actions on the book site. Love it.

    Now, please forgive me, because when you described the row boat, I couldn’t help but think of this:

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  10. Thanks for sharing with us a detailed review of A Moveable Feast. I’m not a Hemingway fan but two years ago, after watching the movie Midnight in Paris, I went on a Hemingway/WWI ‘binge’ (and also with influence of Downton Abbey), books and movies of that period. If you’re interested, here’s my posts on A Moveable Feast, and The Paris Wife, in which I have photos of a location where Hemingway had stayed in Toronto when Hadley gave birth to Bumby. I find that period fascinating… and look forward eagerly to Downton S4. 😉

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  11. Pingback: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood | Word by Word

  12. I can’t recall ever liking a book I read in school – but some have gone on to become my favourites. Maybe you should try The Old Man… again – it is, after all, about writing.
    If you liked A Moveable Feast, you might like Enrique Vila-Matas’ ‘tribute’, Never Any End to Paris.

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    • I do wonder what I might make it of now, it’s something else to go into a book with hindsight and a degree of awareness of the ride one is in for, and a second reading often has different gifts to offer. Thanks too for the recommendation.

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