Written and published just prior to his death, A Moveable Feast reflects on Ernest Hemingway’s (1899 – 1961) time in Paris from 1921 to 1926. As a struggling young writer, he takes in all the city has to offer, including art, cafes, and vibrant intellectuals like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ford Madox Ford.
Hemingway forms himself and his writing under these influences.
Stein, at this point a well-established writer, became a particular guiding force for Ernest Hemingway, not just on writing but on becoming an artist (which in her mind included collecting art).
‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said. ‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures.’
Hemingway’s memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald is particularly bright and shows us the intensity with which Hemingway pulls up the past and the observational ability he honed throughout his life:
Scott did not stop talking and since I was embarrassed by what he said—it was all about my writing and how great it was—I kept on looking at him closely and noticed instead of listening. We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was an open disgrace.
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred.
A Moveable Feast is retrospective, which means the views of himself, the anecdotes, and the feelings expressed are reflections of the older Hemingway.
This doesn’t make it any less interesting, but it does tell us much about the older Hemingway, eager to mythologize—even romanticize—this young time and his young self, a man who appreciated the complexity of spring and motivated himself to write by walking upstairs into his apartment.1
But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of something who lay beside you in the moonlight.
The memories are detailed and immediate, which makes them believable and durable.
In a particularly wonderful chapter of A Moveable Feast, “A Good Cafe,” Hemingway fights off loneliness and emptiness with good food and drink. “I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” One recalls his “Clean, Well Lighted Place,” a short story about an old man staving off soulful emptiness by sitting in a cafe until closing.
Hemingway strikes me as someone who desperately wanted to be seen for who he really was but was never comfortable presenting that version of himself. So much is unspoken in Hemingway’s writing, so much up to us to intuit, and yet, simultaneously, he leads us along. This book is much more than the end-of-life memories intended to mythologize himself. It feels like a final request to be seen, noticed. Or at least to unburden himself of the need. 2
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 do not look up nor know anything about the time, nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James.
Hemingway’s literary cohort includes John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Graham Greene, all born within a few years of each other. Steinbeck also wrote a reflective piece right before he died, but his milieu was journey, discovery, and self-voyage. Greene, on the other hand, seemed intent on paying homage to his younger emotions and younger self.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison is Down and Out, the journals of George Orwell when he lived in Paris, around the same time as Hemingway, but in forced poverty in order to write what he saw. Remarkable gifts, each of them.