Hemingway’s Paris of the Twenties: A Moveable Feast

In the cramped studio we rented when we first stayed in Paris a few months, a well-worn paperback of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast lay on top of three or four books on a night table. The intriguing title was familiar, the first few pages beguiling. I “knew” Hemingway, having read two of his books.

First American edition
Reading about 1920s Paris in Paris? Who could resist? Besides, I wanted to know what that intriguing title meant. I read two more of those night-table books and found them unmemorable. But I resolved to reread A Moveable Feast.

It’s taken me 20 years to follow up on my resolve. When I went into bookstores, I always found something else to distract me and when I remembered to ask about A Moveable Feast, bookstores didn’t carry it.

The advent of ebooks gave new life to A Moveable Feast. Now I have a digital copy.

Two versions of the book exist. In 2009, about fifty years after Hemingway’s death, one of his grandsons published a “Restored Version” which claims to include more material. This second version has had a mixed reception and some critics believe it’s superfluous—it doesn’t improve on the version published in 1964. It does raise the issue, though, of when a book (or other works of art) is truly finished. This is a conundrum for some writers and artists. I, for one, can always find something to change in my “finished” works.

I believe the relative value of the two versions is a tangential issue and have chosen the first to review. The core of the book doesn’t change, in any case. On the surface, it’s Hemingway’s account of his early years in Paris with his first wife. But the book is really more about writing and his encounters with American writers living in 1920s Paris.

A Moveable Feast couldn’t exist, though, without Paris, particularly the cafes the book made famous. From the first chapter, you sense that Paris is the feast for the eyes, ears, palate, and spirit the young writer needed to nurture his creative passion. By the last chapter, he makes it clear it’s those Paris years he’d taken with him anywhere he went.

Written like a stream of consciousness novel, this book has clause upon clause strung up into one long sentence sometimes constituting one big paragraph. Those long, stark sentences characterize much of Hemingway’s ensuing œuvre.

To me, this quote sums up Hemingway’s views on writing:

“But what if it is … only that you are trying to use words that people would actually use? That are the only words that can make the story come true and that you must use them? You have to use them.”

Hemingway believes writers must write the “true” and necessary sentence. It disturbed him to hear F Scott Fitzgerald confess to revising stories in order to sell them. If Hemingway had a crystal ball, he would have realized Fitzgerald’s way was prophetic. Nowadays, most writers write to sell.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway met in Paris shortly after Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby to critical acclaim. This association with Fitzgerald convinced the younger Hemingway to embark on his first novel (The Sun Also Rises).

In addition to F Scott Fitzgerald, the book treats us to Hemingway’s deep, personal impressions of Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and Gertrude Stein. We get glimpses of Picasso (in Stein’s salon), and other writers including James Joyce and TS Eliot.

As a piece on writing, A Moveable Feast dispenses valuable insight. You get a good look into what can make a great writer and you learn something how-to books can never teach.

As a memoir of Hemingway’s early life, it’s of dubious reliability. Hemingway suggests in his Preface that the book can be read as fiction. The book does blur the distinction between reality and fiction. Written more than thirty years after the Paris years with his first wife, Hemingway’s perceptions are filtered through inevitably-flawed memories, and further biased by current wishes and emotion. For instance, Hemingway seemed much in love with his first wife. In fact, only five years into their marriage and with a young son, he concluded his Paris years with an affair with the woman who became the second of his four wives.

Before I realized the book was set in the twenties but written in the fifties, I thought Hemingway quite perceptive and wise for a young man approaching his mid-twenties. His account actually draws from the hindsight and wisdom of a man in his fifties.

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