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a moveable feast

16 october 2018

Till just now, I had never read A Moveable Feast, the classic, posthumously-published grab-bag of Ernest Hemingway's reminiscences about being a young struggling writer in Paris. Nevertheless, I knew quite a few details from the book, which is the founding text of so much "Hemingway in Paris" mystique, despite being decades removed from Hemingway's sojourn there. A Moveable Feast is not meant to be read as a coherent narrative, though its editor, Hemingway's widow Mary, tried to give it some shape and dramatic purpose. But then, Death in the Afternoon, which Hemingway saw through the press, is perhaps less coherent. Like so much of Hemingway's writing, A Moveable Feast is irritating and admirable by turns. And it's part of modernist culture now: sooner or later, even when you're pushing 60, I suppose, you have to account for it if you are interested in the writers of its generation and milieu.

I will accentuate the positive, and be brief; though the things about the book that I like are very good, as Hemingway might say. A Moveable Feast strongly conveys Hemingway's interest in reading. He is always assessing other writers, often very appreciatively; he dislikes literary rivalry (speaking acidly at one point about Gertrude Stein's envy of James Joyce; warmly praising Ezra Pound's generosity). Above all, he is always reading as he writes – not simultaneously, mind you, after the manner of some distracted 21st-century Internet reviewer like me, but reading between sessions of writing, and recommending that practice as the best method for literary composition. As much as we associate Hemingway with direct description and pared-down narrative, it's important to recognize that he did not just transcribe reality. He presents himself as living in the language of books, as when he banters with a tipsy and spaced-out Ford Madox Ford in a vocabulary cobbled together from books they've both read. Despite his unmistakable style, Hemingway was very much a "dialogic" writer, appropriating the verbal tics of others. That's the manner of The Sun Also Rises, for instance, his first novel and (with A Farewell to Arms) his best. You might even say that Hemingway was a greater writer the more he tapped into the language of others. When he started to sound like Hemingway, he was sunk.

The through-line of the book, as Mary Hemingway assembled it, is Hemingway's doomed marriage to Hadley, his "Paris wife." Poignant as some of this material is, it was never really finished as drama, and remains suggestive.

By far the best part of A Moveable Feast covers Hemingway's friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's a small portion of the book, but Mary placed it last because of its power, last except for a final piece about skiing with Hadley in Austria and metaphorically crashing their marriage. The central anecdote in the Fitzgerald section is a story, at once terrible fun and terribly sad, of the two iconic novelists, still young and uncanonical, traveling from Paris to Lyons to retrieve an automobile that Scott and his wife Zelda had somehow abandoned there. Fitzgerald is drunk, insouciant, narcissistic, and impossible to dislike, even though Hemingway has great cause (as he presents it) to dislike him, and does his best to put Fitzgerald in the worst possible light. With the blasé attitude of those born to money, Fitzgerald throws it this way and that, not comprehending that Hemingway really is a starving artist, and not just playing at being one. Zelda, in the background in the Lyons-car story and later briefly foregrounded in another short piece, is evil incarnate. And here is where Hemingway tips over from admirable to annoying; it is not enough to tease Scott while valuing him; he must demonize Zelda in the process.

Yet for all that, Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. And his success cancels every possible grudge Hemingway might hold against him. Even as Scott keeps Hemingway himself from working, showing up drunk to Hemingway's writing sessions, channeling the way that Zelda (as Hemingway sees it) prevented Scott himself from writing, his talent, and more importantly his realization of that talent, remain paramount. Annoying as Hemingway can be, he ultimately values the same things in literature that any good reader must value.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scriber, 1964.