Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast

“I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Written and published just prior to his death, A Moveable Feast reflects on Ernest Hemingway’s (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 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, and forms himself and his writing under these influences.

Gertrude 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.1

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.

Cafe by Marilyn Yee featured in Peter Mayle's "Encore Provence" in the Examined Life Library.
“Paris cafe” 2021, illustration by Marilyn Yee.

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.2

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.

It was wonderful to walk down the long flight of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free If I walked then to walk anywhere in Paris.

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.3

moveable feast
Left Bank, Paris. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

One of the most insightful things I’ve read about Hemingway came from the Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

“They say Hemingway was probably queer, but that he didn’t realize it or didn’t want to accept it. It doesn’t really matter what he was. What difference does it make? But what I did hate about him was the way he wanted to appear so masculine.”

"Croissant" by Marilyn Yee featured in Peter Mayle's "Encore Provence" in the Examined Life Library.
“Croissant” 2021, illustration by Marilyn Yee.

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.

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.

"Roof tops of Paris" by Marilyn Yee.
“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.” Illustration by Marilyn Yee

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.

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.