A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Ah, Papa Hemingway! An author I’ve tended to avoid over the years because of
a. the animal cruelty
b. the macho quality
However, I have had a copy of “A Moveable Feast” knocking around for years, mainly because it has reminiscences of Gertrude Stein; but it was a fairly nasty old paperback and so a chance picking up of a new and decent copy actually had me picking it up. Somehow, non-fiction seems to appeal at the moment and so this seemed a good way to try out Hem’s prose.
“Feast” was written in the latter part of Hemingway’s life, being finished shortly before his death, and covers his life in Paris in the 1920s. He was at the time married to Hadley, and they had a small son Bumby; Hem was trying to scratch out a living as a writer, and the family lived as cheaply as they could, existing on his meagre earnings with handouts from Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co from time to time. Nevertheless, this was the place to be at the time, as you could mix with Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and of course the Fitzgeralds. And oddly enough, one of my recent reads turns up too:
The Closerie de Lilas had once been a cafe where poets met more or less regularly and the last principal poet had been Paul Fort whom I had never read. But the only poet I ever saw there was Blaise Cendrars, with his broken boxer’s face and his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand. He was a good companion until he drank too much and, at that time, when he was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly. But he was the only poet who came into the Lilas and I only saw him there once.
Hemingway’s prose turned out to be much better than I expected; I had heard much about his love of simple, unadorned writing but I think that’s a little deceptive. Hem’s writing may appear straightforward but it’s not; it’s well constructed, descriptive and quite evocative. What’s also fascinating is his view of the characters he meets; Lewis is described as unpleasant, Joyce a distant figure of admiration, Stein complex and difficult, and Pound as one of the nicest and kindest people Hem knows. This latter is particularly intriguing as by the time the book was written, Pound had gone from being reviled to a forgotten figure because of his views during WW2. Hemingway must have known this, of course, but still had plenty of nice things to say about the disgraced poet; which makes me keen to explore Pound and his life and work more.
A fair chunk of this book is made up of Hemingway’s recollections of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and these are fascinating. Scott comes across as eccentric, hypochondriac, obsessed with Zelda and yet unable to write while he’s around her. I did sense a certain misogyny in Hemingway’s attitudes – it’s there in his view of Gertrude Stein and also in the way he writes about Zelda. He obviously doesn’t like her, and his judgements of her seem simplistic, especially as it’s clear nowadays what a complex and troubled woman she was. Nevertheless, his affection for Scott shines through, and also for his Paris years when he and his family were poor but happy.
I enjoyed my first experience of Hemingway much more than I expected, and there are several more works of fiction available to me, as well as his journalism. So I don’t think this read will be a one-off….!