A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: The Writing Life in Post World War I Paris
Reading A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway is like peeking through a magic window into a vanished world, an enchanted one of love, wine, and cafés full of famous writers and artists. The grand finale of a stellar literary career, the book is a memoir of Hemingway’s early writing life in Paris from 1921 to 1927, where he lived with his first of four wives, Hadley Richardson. If you have not yet begun to read Hemingway, his last book is a great one to start with; it provides a foundation for understanding the influences on his style and his philosophy on writing. Also it is a delight to read, brimming with vivid description and fascinating stories of another era.
Hemingway began writing the memoir in 1957 and had not quite finalized it when he committed suicide in July 1961. It was first edited under the supervision of his fourth wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, and published in 1964. I read the newer “Restored Edition” which was edited by Hemingway’s grandson Seán Hemingway and published in 2009. The new edition includes a forward by Hemingway’s son Patrick (by Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife), an introduction by Seán, and some newly added material in a section entitled “Additional Paris Sketches.” Seán Hemingway asserts in his Introduction that this edition is truer to his grandfather's intentions than 1964 edition. Before his death Hemingway had a completed the manuscript but had not decided on a title for the book. Mary chose A Movable Feast based on something Hemingway had once written:
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”
Vivid Memory and Passion
The last words of the final chapter are:
“This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”
Hemingway had undergone electro shock therapy at the Mayo Clinic for depression, and this may have been what he meant by the reference to tampering with his memory. A side effect of electro shock therapy is memory loss. For Hemingway, this would have been devastating, and scholars believe it hastened his demise. But if he felt he had no heart in 1961, what struck me most about this book is how alive and well Hemingway’s heart was during the 1920s. The message that comes through loud and clear is that Hemingway cared deeply about the art and craft of writing, about his peers both as writers and as human beings, and most of all, about Hadley. The book glows with his love for his wife and his genuine appreciation for her delightful personality, support of his work, and companionship.
Cafés Full of Famous Writers
In the 1920s, Paris was full of expatriate American writers and the recent Great War was very much on everyone’s mind. Hemingway mentions many writers including Hilaire Belloc, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and John Dos Passos. He writes most extensively about three who became his good friends, at least for a time: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The insight his stories give to these icons of literature as real people is priceless.
Gertrude Stein was a mentor to Hemingway and welcomed him warmly into her art-filled apartment and eccentric life. They shared many meals and had fascinating discussions about writing and art, but Hemingway says Stein was very biased in her opinions about other writers: she only liked those who praised her work. He also describes how Stein coined the term “The Lost Generation” which has subsequently been used to categorize the generation of disenchanted writers who came of age during the World War I era.
Ezra Pound, another American living in Europe, was already a well-known writer, journalist, and literary editor when Hemingway met him during a four-year period when they both lived in Paris. Hemingway’s portrayal of Ezra Pound as the kindest person he ever met—kind to everyone seemingly without judgment—is especially interesting considering Pound’s later profoundly controversial actions (such as agreeing to make anti-American radio broadcasts in support of Hitler and Mussolini during World War II and making anti-Semitic statements.) Once when Hemingway asked him what he thought of Dostoevsky, Pound said, “I’ve never read the Rooshians….Keep to the French….You’ve plenty to learn there.”
Hemingway portrays F. Scott Fitzgerald as a rather childlike troubled genius with a serious drinking problem and blindly in love with a woman who is jealous of his writing. The description about a crazy trip Hemingway took with Fitzgerald to Lyon is both hilarious and profoundly sad. Hemingway agrees to accompany Fitzgerald on a trip shortly after he first meets him and is not aware of his personality quirks and the effects of alcoholism on his behavior. During the trip they get wet in the rain because Fitzgerald refused to replace the top on the Renault they are driving after it has been removed due to damage and then insists he is near death with lung congestion even though he has no fever and spends a day in a hotel bed. Hemingway repeatedly regrets his decision to take the trip and gets to know his new friend better than he ever expected. Amazingly enough, the two writers remained friends for many years.
Memoir: Fact or Fiction?
Hemingway states that the book can be regarded as fiction. I assume he means that the book is fiction in the sense that all memoirs are fiction: they are memories of one person shaped into coherent structured stories. But when I compared his versions of events with other biographies, I could see how his emotions and his sense of himself may have colored the facts. The interplay between memory, emotion, and historical fact is fascinating. For example, he expressed a strong aversion to the writer Ford Madox Ford, portraying him as an overbearing liar with a bad odor. But the fact is Ford gave the young Hemingway a big break by letting him edit his literary journal The Transatlantic Journal and publishing some of his early stories. Of course, this in no way means that Hemingway had to like Ford or was obligated to portray him a flattering way. But perhaps he could have acknowledged his professional debt to the man. In his Introduction, Seán Hemingway says that Hemingway and Ford may have quarreled over money, implying that perhaps the author’s memories were colored by this experience.
Hemingway repeatedly emphasizes how poor he and Hadley were in the early days but also how happy. They did not buy new clothing and because their apartment was not adequately heated, they wore sweatshirts as underwear. This in fact is how they did live. But, according to The Hemingway Research Center, although the Hemingways’ apartment was indeed miserable, without running water and only a slop bucket for a toilet, “… they could have afforded much better; with Hemingway’s job and Hadley’s trust fund their annual income was $3000, a decent sum in the inflated economies of Europe at the time.” So apparently, likely for very good reasons, the Hemingways deliberately chose to live in relative poverty.
Hemingway acknowledges that this lifestyle was harder on Hadley than on himself, since he had his work to occupy his mind. Hadley came from a well-off family and was accustomed to a higher standard of living, but Hemingway said she never complained and writes of her in consistently glowing terms. He portrays Hadley as unfailingly supportive and always delightful company. It is apparent that both were enchanted with each other and with their chosen Bohemian lifestyle.
The End of a Marriage and of an Era
The most difficult part of the book for Hemingway seems to have been how to describe the end of his marriage to Hadley, which is important, because it is this relationship that underlies the structure for and the spirit of the entire memoir. However, the story of the break-up does not appear in the main body of the book, except for some dark hints about something that happened one winter at the ski resort Schruns. Hemingway and Hadley spent several winters at this ski resort in Vorarlberg, Austria. It seems to have been a rustic place that they loved and it is where he wrote much of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.
The most direct reference to the incident that ended the marriage is described in chapter entitled “The Pilot Fish and the Rich,” which appears in the section called “Additional Paris Sketches.” It seems that when Hemingway was beginning to build some excitement in the literary world, and a group of wealthy people descended upon Schruns while he was there one winter. A young woman named Pauline Pfeiffer came to town along with the rich people, became friends with Hadley, and moved into their home. Hemingway ended up divorcing Hadley and marrying Pauline in 1927. All this happened, according the Hemingway’s story, without him ever falling out of love with Hadley. He says he experienced the torture of loving two women as well as years of guilt and remorse until Hadley met and married a man who deserved her more than he and felt assured she was happy.
A Movable Feast is a book that brings to vivid life an era and some of the most famous names of the 20th century literary world. I recommend this book highly and suspect that like me, as soon as you close the cover, you will be adding several early 20th century books to your reading list.