“This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy,” writes Ernest Hemingway of the years between 1921 and 1926 when, as a struggling young writer, he lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and their son, Bumby. A Moveable Feast, a collection of twenty essays published after Hemingway’s death, captures the moods of a city.
Having quit his job as a journalist, Hemingway lived in an apartment overlooking a sawmill. Selling only a few stories and living on very little money, he skimped on firewood, wore sweatshirts as underwear, and skipped more than a few meals. He borrowed books from Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, where his credit was good and Sylvia herself could be counted on for small loans. Occasional windfalls came from lucky bets on the horses, but new clothes and dinners out were rare. The couple did not consider themselves poor. They found poverty ennobling and looked down on the rich.
The book offers without pardon or apology Hemingway’s unvarnished opinions on the legendary writers and artists who worked in Paris at that time. He relished Gertrude Stein’s food, liqueur, and encouragement but resented her treatment of him and his wife as “promising children.” He judged the poet Ford Madox Ford foul-smelling, forgetful, and abusive and the painter Wyndham Lewis arrogant and cruel. Three essays reveal Hemingway’s assessment of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose talent, he writes,...
Perhaps more than any other writer of the twentieth century, Ernest Hemingway laid bare the violent realities lurking beneath all human experience. His aim from the very beginning was to represent those realities as precisely as he could, never minimizing their destructive potential. Life, he wrote early in his career, was uncompromising. It punished the fine and the foul impartially, taking its own grim time, choosing its own grim methods. The bleak and simple wisdom is given form in the retreat from Caporetto, the wound of Jake Barnes, the wreckage of the old man’s great fish.
In his attempts to render, and thus confront, the desolating facts of life, Hemingway was himself uncompromising. He developed a subdued and stoic prose that betokened what he thought the only meaningful response to the inevitable ruin that time visits on everyone. Through the exercise of control, individuals could confer grace and dignity on defeat, and though time would destroy it need not humiliate. Even Hemingway’s symbols reflected this tight dialectic, compressing it into local realities that were images of the eternal shape of the contest, as in his picture of the bullfight. In the rituals of the arena, the bull would always die, and ultimately the bullfighter would too. The animal, however, would go down charging, whereas the fighter at his best performed a ceremony of courage, delicacy, and precision. Though neither would survive, neither would retreat from the confrontation with death.
In A Moveable Feast, written in the last years of Hemingway’s life and published after his death, there is in one respect a disquieting relaxation of that old standard. Though much of the prose is as fine as ever, Hemingway, in remembering his early years in Paris, engages in nervous battle for first place among his writing contemporaries, those individuals whom with the passage of time had gained almost mythic stature. Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had begun to be seen as figures in a novel, endlessly alive on the streets along the Seine, in Gertrude Stein’s apartment, at the sidewalk cafés, and in the warm and cluttered interior of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. In A Moveable Feast, however, Hemingway reduces these figures not by distortion of facts but by skillful placing of reductive emphases. It is as though Hemingway, before entering the ring, had drugged his bull.
Nevertheless, the writing is so compelling that the reader must make a special effort to remember that this is not an objective account of that literary generation that provoked as much interest in itself as in its works. As historical document, the book adds to an understanding of the past, sometimes striking a comic note, as in clarifying that Stein’s famous remark, “You are all a generation perdue,” or a lost generation, originated with an angry garage manager giving a tongue-lashing to an attendant repairing Stein’s automobile.
More often there is something graceless about Hemingway’s selection of detail. A...