A Moveable Feast
In 1928, Ernest Hemingway stored two steamer trunks at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and didn’t retrieve them until 1956. Inside the trunks were notes and papers from his days in Paris, during the time when he wrote his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and was married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Seeing these notes prompted Hemingway to begin working on a memoir of his days in Paris, where he was part of the expatriate community of writers, artists and creative minds, known now as the “Lost Generation”, a term attributed to Gertrude Stein. By the 1950s, however, Hemingway was suffering from many conditions, injuries resulting from two serious plane crashes, poor eyesight, depression and different paranoias. He committed suicide in 1961, leaving the book unfinished. After his death, his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, edited the manuscript and the first edition of A Moveable Feast was published in 1964.
My interest in the Lost Generation started a few years ago after I read The Sun Also Rises and then read more about Paris in the 1920s and of the talented writers and artists who lived there and met in the city’s cafés. Then I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, a terrific historical fiction about Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. After that, it only made sense to go back to the source, A Moveable Feast.
It’s fascinating to me that so many talented people were all together in Paris. Did they know they were part of this creative burst? Some of the well-knowns were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Others included Wyndham Lewis, Ford Maddux Ford, and Ernest Walsh, names I didn’t know, but enjoyed reading about.
The book reads a lot like Hemingway’s fiction. His simple writing style is identical. Hemingway presents a vivid picture of this time period and, in particular, talks easily about his relationships with Hadley, Stein, and Fitzgerald. I liked reading about his disciplined approach to writing and his desire for perfection. He was very focused on writing what he called “true” sentences and was not happy unless he had put in a productive time writing, often in cafés or in a sparse rented room. I think he makes it very clear how hard writing is and how devoted and conscientious a writer must be.
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.
Hemingway and Hadley seemed very happy in their marriage, despite being poor. He describes an easy and affectionate relationship. This is, of course, before his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife. He seems to deeply regret hurting Hadley and writes:
The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book. I wrote it and left it out. It is a complicated, valuable and instructive story. How it all ended, finally, has nothing to do with this either. Any blame in that was mine to take and possess and understand. The only one, Hadley, who had no possible blame, ever, came well out of it finally and married a much finer man than I ever was or could hope to be and is happy and deserves it and that was one good and lasting thing that came of that year.
His relationship with the American writer and art collector, Gertrude Stein, gave him confidence, but lasted only a few years. In the book, Hemingway explains the friendship and tries to understand why it ended.
Hemingway also discusses his friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, including Scott’s marriage to Zelda. He recognizes a great talent, but even before Hemingway meets Zelda, he can see Fitzgerald’s life and marriage spiraling. After reading The Great Gatsby, Hemingway understands his role as a friend.
When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how preposterously he behaved, I must know it 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. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. But we were to find out soon enough.
Other topics include horse racing, boxing, eating, drinking and writing in cafés, skiing in the Austrian Alps and the story of how Hadley lost all his papers and previous manuscripts on a train. I very much enjoyed reading about Hemingway during this time, although I’m sure it is subjective. I had read that Hemingway was very difficult to live with – that seems to be left out here, except for one reference to his own hot temper.
My earlier impression of an aimless group of hard-drinking and pleasure-seeking writers and artists changed a bit after reading his account and I recommend the book to anyone who wants to know more about Hemingway and this group.
Some side notes:
You might like these other Hemingway books and short stories:
The Sun Also Rises
A Farewell to Arms
The Old Man and the Sea
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
“Hills Like White Elephants”
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
You can find a lot of information about Hemingway online. Click here to view his Wikipedia page.
A sad history of suicide has plagued generations of Hemingways, beginning with Ernest Hemingway’s father. Hemingway’s sister and brother also took their own lives, as did his granddaughter, Margaux. In an effort to understand and avoid this trap, Margaux’s sister, Mariel made a documentary entitled “Running from Crazy”. You can read a CNN article about this 2013 film here.
The Restored Edition of Hemingway’s memoir was edited by his grandson Seán Hemingway, who is a curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seán also wrote the introduction. Hemingway’s son Patrick (from his marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer) wrote the foreward. This edition is different from the first, in that the chapters are ordered differently and a few extra sections are added, including transcriptions of Hemingway’s false starts for his introduction. Some people were critical of Mary Welsh’s introduction and her editing and this newer version seeks to share all the parts of his manuscript. I enjoyed reading an interesting article about The Restored Edition of A Moveable Feast from popmatters.com.
Hemingway had a hard time with marriage and was married four times. Read more about his wives on Wikipedia:
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