A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

by Paul Mathers

ImageIndeed, one of the great things about A Moveable Feast is that is Hemingway in which Hemingway not only appears but is both protagonist and narrator. As it was published posthumously, we get an unfiltered look at bohemian Paris of the 1920s through the eyes of Ernest Hemingway. He speaks of Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and the needless to name Alice B. Toklas, Wyndham Lewis (which was hilarious), Picasso, Ford Maddox Ford (which was also hilarious), and many more. It is a wonderful book, but one with some issues.

One of the issues is in the current available editions and, indeed, in the ambiguity of what the author would have intended. When I went to purchase this book, I could not find anything but the Restored Edition for a price I was willing to pay. This surprised me as my last brush with this book, sometime in the early 1990s, the mass market paperback of the familiar edition was readily and cheaply available. This seems to have something to do with the machinations of the current Hemingway family. There are critiques of the Restored Edition, over the grandson’s purging of his own grandmother from the text. I found myself not missing or remembering or noticing anything about this. My issue was not in the omissions, but what was added.

There are some additions to the chapters that already existed and I took no issue with those, but the book finished with “additional sketches” and even worse “fragments.” Interesting for completists, but played havoc with the flow of the book. The final chapter of the book with Scott Fitzgerald is perfect. To tack on other bits you found in grandpa’s shoebox was a flagrant breach of the editorial arts. In short, the book was brilliant. Sometimes cutting ruins a work of art, sometimes adding does the same. I hesitate to say that it was ruined, but it was like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. When I learned where Welles had meant to end the film, I stopped it at that point at every subsequent viewing of the film.

Hemingway’s prose was as crisp and modern as I remember it. Perhaps it’s in contrast to the sort of prose I’ve been reading for the past several years, but I found the clarity to be quite refreshing. My next poetic form is the haiku and his prose style seemed to bear some similarities.  The austerity and economy of language can strike me as admirable, although, this illustrates my relationship with Hemingway. I love Hemingway in one book. I discovered this about myself in my teens. If I try to read another book by Hemingway immediately after, halfway through my hands will begin shake and I’ll go hunt down any other author, grab them by the collar, and say, “Come on, man. You’ve gotta help me out! Make me go look something up in a dictionary! Reference a Greek myth! Self-reference! Talk about an emotion! Anything!”

I think I love Hemingway once in every five years.

A Moveable Feast is, on the surface, a series of vignettes although I would argue that it is a unified book (if you don’t go adding things to it). You should read it to gain a firsthand perspective on life in one of the flashpoints of art, literature, and culture, a flashpoint which, in our time, must still be reckoned with. Unlike Woody Allen’s recent romanticization of the period (not to denigrate It was a fine film), I think one of the great values to a work like this is that it shows these people as mere people. They drink too much, they have insecurities, they have petty squabbles, they wander around aimlessly, their conversation about works of art fail to capture the greatness they mean to communicate. In other words, it leaves you with a question: what if they greatest artists of the last 100 years were just like you and me?