Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hemingway's Hemingway in Paris

(Reflections on A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 1992.)

For Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he casts himself as straight man in a cast of eccentrics, holy fools, and parasites. A man’s man, honest, lean, tough, discerning, loyal beyond the call of reasonable duty: “Hem” doesn’t go a page without bolstering this image of himself. Ironically, what I take away from this memoir savors of the experience of listening to the gossip of catty Southern women. They affect regret and sympathy while they recount embarrassing details with prurient delight, just for the sake of honesty, you understand, and they tack “well, bless his heart” at the end to make it all right.

The egregious example is the portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alcoholic, hypochondriac, self-deluded, hen-pecked, sissy, pampered, affected, and rude to waiters and mechanics, Fitzgerald gets two chapters of ridicule from patient, long-suffering Ernest – with one chapter building to FSF’s insecurity about his masculine “measurements” -- and all of two sentences about the excellence of THE GREAT GATSBY.

Along the way, Hemingway also dismisses a character by saying that her idea of a great writer was Henry James – the artist whose works I spent two years plumbing. He tells us how Ford Maddox Ford smelled, how Gertrude Stein debased herself in such a way that he couldn’t bring himself to listen to her – but he could bring himself to write about it in a book for generations to read. He does have praise for a prolific writer I’ve enjoyed, whose name seems to have dropped off the list of must-reads, Georges Simenon ( 27).

About himself, Hemingway modestly mentions very little about his own writing and successes, and he shows three weaknesses three times: Gambling on horse races, allowing loyalty to friends to distract him from work, and having an affair with one of the rich people he disdains in the final chapter.

Accept his self-serving self-portrait, however, and the book is a pleasure to read and may even be worth re-reading in its new “restored” edition. It opens with Paris at its worst: cold, rainy, smelly, dirty, crowded. But Hemingway soon finds a good café where he can work, and we begin to get the picture of Paris that I’ve always cherished, a place where affairs of the heart , pursuit of art, and appreciation for good food and drink comprise the whole of life.

I was intrigued by his writer’s advice to avoid adjectives, to write until one knows what’s coming next, and by his reference to something he learned about writing from Cezanne’s paintings, something he couldn’t put in words. But he learns from Cezanne at least this, that “true sentences” are not enough (13).

Beyond this, there’s the appeal of nostalgia, as Christopher Hitchens so accurately describes it in his ATLANTIC MONTHLY review:

Most of all, though, I believe that A Moveable Feast serves the purpose of a double nostalgia: our own as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave … and Hemingway’s at the end of his distraught days, as he saw again the “City of Light” with his remaining life still ahead of him rather than so far behind.

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