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Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway wrote and rewrote A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his impoverished years as a young writer in Paris, but was never satisfied. He could not decide on a title, or an ending, or which chapters to include or reject. In the end, he did not decide any of this. His editors (first his fourth wife and then, in a later edition, his grandson) chose for him posthumously. This is the version of A Moveable Feast we read today: a pieced together memoir Hemingway himself never finished. Yet, the fragments lend humanity to a literary legend, bringing author and reader closer together.

A Moveable Feast is a jaunt through the St. Germaine district of Paris. As he drinks at bars, writes and dines in cafes, and bets on horse races with his first wife, Hadley, we meet the cast of characters that becomes Hemingway's acquaintances, competitors, and colleagues, the literary geniuses known to us today as "The Lost Generation". Still a young writer who has not even published his first novel, we get a glimpse of his daily life and writing habits. He reads voraciously and has opinions on all the recently famous authors of his time. He skips meals when he can't afford them. He writes each day from a booth in the Closerie des Lilas, sipping a café crème, hoping to publish enough short stories to make ends meet.

I sat in a corner with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulders and wrote in the notebook. The waiter brought me a café crème and I drank half of it when it cooled and left it on the table while I wrote. When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it. But in the morning the river would be there and I must make it and the country and all that would happen. There were days ahead to be doing that each day. No other thing mattered....All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start work again. In those days we never thought that any of that could be difficult.

For literary buffs who have read James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and other writers from the same period, the book allows us to peer into the relationships and daily lives of these personages. Readers will enjoy Hemingway's first meeting with Fitzgerald, at the time already a famous author preparing to publish The Great Gatsby. Also enjoyable is Hemingway's fanboy-esque respect for Joyce, who has recently published Ulysses. In a notable scene, Hemingway and his wife chose a restaurant simply because they once saw Joyce's family dining there. His friendship with Pound illustrates that, although some friends, including Gertrude Stein, he actively kept at a distance, others he deeply admired.

One of my favorite vignettes is also the most humorous--and controversial. Fitzgerald, concerned about the size of his penis, turned to his good friend Hemingway for advice. (Note: this story is only available in this recent version of A Moveable Feast. His fourth wife's original version left it out.)

"Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt thee same since she said that and I have to know truly." "Come out to the office," I said. "Or you go out first..." We came back into the room and sat down at the table. "You're perfectly fine, I said." "You are O.K. There's nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile." "Those statues may not be accurate." "They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them..." We went over to the Louvre and he looked at the statues but he was still doubtful about himself. "It is not basically a question of size in repose," I said. "It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle," I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.

His descriptions of those he dislikes are just as enjoyable:

I have always avoided looking at Ford when I could and I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room, but this was the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks from my side of the table past his, so I took a good look at him, repented, and looked across the boulevard.

A Moveable Feast, edited by Hemingway's grandson Seán, contains never-before-published chapters about life with his first wife between 1921 and 1926, and their lives in Paris. Bonus materials in this edition, generously provided by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, include handwritten drafts, alternate dedications, and "lost" chapters that bring to life Hemingway the young, struggling author.

Although Hemingway's memoir is unfinished and its chapters evocative of the disconnected memories of any of us who has spent time in the city, A Moveable Feast exquisitely captures a period of literary history in the making. Before they were famous, they were struggling writers. At the height of their fame, they still worried about the size of their penises. The lesson to aspiring writers is that no matter how great the genius, the members of the Lost Generation were simply human. Paris did not make them great. Years of dedicated toiling with notebooks and café crèmes brought their enviable fame.

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