Reading A Moveable Feast is like walking along the sea shore. On the fine sandy beach you see many attractive shells, but you don’t have a bucket with you. You pick the finest ones and put them in your pockets, until they’re full. But every step you take further, you see more that you want to keep. This post is too limited for me to display all the shells I’ve collected, but allow me to just pour them out from my pockets, without sorting, sand and all.
I first read about the term “Moveable Feast” while sitting in an Anglican church in Vancouver, flipping through the The Book of Common Prayer. After some googling later, I got the idea. A feast in the liturgical calendar that you commemorate no matter which date it falls on year after year. In the Foreword of this restored edition, Hemingway’s son Patrick (with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer) writes:
The complexity of a moveable feast lies in the calculation of the calendar date for Easter in a given year, from which it is simple enough then to assign a calendar date to each and every moveable feast for a given year. Palm Sunday is seven days before Easter.
A memorable experience that will follow you all the years of your life. You’ll cherish it whenever and wherever you are. Hemingway’s friend A. E. Hotchner suggested this title. Author of the biography Papa Hemingway, Hotchner recalls Hemingway once said to him:
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 moveable feast.
Like Rick says to Ilsa in “Casablanca”: “We’ll always have Paris.” Same sentiment.
A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir written from notes he had forgotten in two steamer trunks stored at the Ritz Hotel in Paris since 1928. In 1956 he repossessed the treasure trove, upon the urging of the hotel management. The book details his experience while living in Paris from 1921 to 1926, when the author was in his early 20’s. The memoir was first published posthumously in 1964. The Paris Years was a period when Hemingway, just married Hadley Richardson, young and care-free, decided to give up journalism to strive at being a novelist.
He would write in a rented room or in a café over café crème,
meet Gertrude Stein for critique of his writing, go back home for lunch with wife Hadley, or have oysters and wine in a restaurant, socialize with Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and other expats, borrow piles of books from Sylvia Beach’s library in her bookshop Shakespeare and Company, visit Luxembourg gardens and museum…
Two people, then, could live comfortably and well in Europe on five dollars a day and could travel.
No wonder Gil in “Midnight in Paris” dreams of such a life.
What strikes me initially is Hemingway’s frankness, sometimes blatant description of his opinion about the people he met. Like the first time he saw the artist Wyndham Lewis through Ezra Pound:
I watched Lewis carefully without seeming to look at him, as you do when you are boxing, and I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man… I tried to break his face down and describe it but I could only get the eyes. Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.
According to grandson Sean Hemingway who edited and wrote the introduction of this restored edition, Hemingway developed his sharp eye and ear during these Paris years. Here’s an account of Scott Fitzgerald when Hemingway first met him in the Dingo bar:
Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose.
This is only a little excerpt in a two page description of Scott’s appearance. It’s sentences like these that stand out for me. They all point to the writer at work: observing.
I kept on looking at him closely and noticed…”
“I kept on observing Scott.
And putting down in words later:
I wasn’t learning very much from looking at him now except that he had well shaped, capable-looking hands, not too small, and when he sat on one of the bar stools I saw that he had very short legs. With normal legs he would have been perhaps two inches taller.
But it was Scott’s talents despite his eccentricities and alcoholism that formed the building blocks of their friendship.
When I had finished the book [The Great Gatsby] I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how preposterously he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend. … If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.
It is perhaps with such candour and devotion in writing that he constantly sought to “write one true sentence.” Woody Allen has grasped the essence in this juicy line from “Midnight in Paris”:
No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.
The restored edition brings back sections missing in the earlier 1964 publication which was edited by fourth and last wife Mary. According to Sean Hemingway, this restored work represents the content that Hemingway himself had intended the book to have, with the chapter “Nada y Pues Nada” (Nothing And Then Nothing) written three months before his suicide.
The second last chapter “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” shows he was remorseful over the breakdown of his first marriage to Hadley towards the end of his Paris days. A mutual friend they both knew, journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, came in between them. “You love them both now… Everything is split inside of you and you love two people now instead of one.”
But A Moveable Feast belongs to Earnest and Hadley and their young son Bumby. “… this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” As a reader, I feel a sense of loss as I come to the end, for Earnest and Hadley were so much in love the first few years in Paris:
She: ‘And we’ll never love anyone else but each other.’
He: ‘No. Never.’
Their 2-room rental walk-up with no electricity and no hot water had been a haven of warm meals and intimate talks. It was the time when he was “a young man supporting a wife and child … learning to write prose.” Their short marriage lasted only six years. In 1927 Hemingway married Pauline, four months after divorcing Hadley.
The last section at the end of the book is entitled “Fragments”. These are “false starts”, beginning paragraphs of an introduction Hemingway tried to write for this book. Interestingly, every one of these attempts starts with: “This book is fiction.” Many include this sentence: “I have left out much and changed and eliminated and I hope Hadley understands.” In another fragment he wrote: “No one can write true fact in reminiscences…”
I’m baffled. But maybe unnecessarily. From our very subjective mind, our often hazy view of what did happen and what we wish to have happened and what could have happened, we conjure up a fusion. Should there be a clear line separating them? It’s because the demarkation of fact and fantasy is fluid that we can appreciate the arts, such as the film “Midnight in Paris.” The events that happen to Gil after midnight would remain fondly with him as reality, so real that they change his decision regarding his future. Facts or fiction… or fusion?
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway, published by Scribner, NY, 2009, 240 pages. Foreword by Patrick Hemingway, introduced and edited by Sean Hemingway.
To read my review of “Midnight In Paris”, CLICK HERE.
Photos: Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Writers’ portraits and The Library in Shakespeare and Company taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Aug. 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Click on the following links for some insightful interviews:
National Post Interview with Sean Hemingway on the restored edition
Interview with Woody Allen on making “Midnight In Paris”