In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not the biggest fan of Ernest Hemingway’s matter-of-fact, uncluttered prose style, though I think it works fairly well for the purposes of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously-published memoirs—though it’s really more a collection of vignettes—of his life in 1920s Paris. Hemingway’s fourth wife helped assemble the book from the collection of manuscripts, notes and journals he’d left behind after he died, and it was published in 1964; the edition I read was a much-ballyhooed “restored version,” released in 2009 and edited by Sean Hemingway (Ernest’s grandson), who claimed previous versions had misrepresented his grandfather’s true intentions. At the risk of sounding irreverent, I thought the book was good, but not great, though I expected to love it, given that I’ll be living in Paris for precisely nine more days and am deep in the throes of nostalgia for the past two years of my life.
While, given the circumstances of its publication, the narrative was naturally disjointed, and most of the stories simply seemed to say the same thing over and over again. But enough about the bad: The book did evoke a very specific “expat writer’s life” in the best city in the world in which to be a writer. Hemingway paints colorful and vivid portraits of the members of the tight community of artists he joined and came to call his best friends (he lived on the Left Bank, of course, in the 5th arrondissement on rue Cardinal Lemoine, which is now quite a posh address but I gather from his descriptions was a “poor neighborhood” back in the day)—Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound (who comes off as the most likeable of the bunch, despite the fact that he was literally a Fascist), James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald owns the last third of the book, and I have to say that I gained a better understanding of the author of The Great Gatsby through A Moveable Feast than I did of Hemingway himself. Reading about Fitzgerald’s hypochondria, his resigned devotion to short stories because that’s where the money was, the dysfunctional relationship between the author and his wife, Zelda, really brings home what everyone knows but can’t quite fathom intuitively: that writers who have been appropriately canonized and whose work appears on every high-school reading list the world over were once neurotic, self-doubting “working authors,” often more concerned with paychecks than with creating great art, blithely handing over copies of “the novel they’ve been working on” to friends whose opinions they trust, never really expecting to get the thing published or receive any legitimate acclaim for it. Fitzgerald’s early novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned especially, apparently received lackluster reviews and invited his friends to talk a lot about his potential. Even Hemingway seemed surprised that Fitzgerald had been able to write a novel as “fine” as The Great Gatsby.
Scenes like this, spilling over with dramatic irony, always amuse me, recalling the excoriating reviews It’s A Wonderful Life received upon its release, or a casting director’s infamous assessment of Gene Kelly (“Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little”), or even Ben Affleck’s college drama teacher telling him he wasn’t good-looking enough to make it in Hollywood. But the point is, in the beginning, all great works are just words on a page and a talented mind’s fervent hope that it has produced something with meaning, whatever that may be. At times Hemingway makes the life of a writer seem tranquil—ruminations over café crèmes at Brasserie Lipp, idly perusing the lending library at Shakespeare & Co.—but it must have been difficult, all the work and pain and sweat and tears and fears of “selling out” or, worse, never “making it.” Still, I can’t say I’m not envious. Even more so now that I’m leaving Paris for New York and, in three months, Berlin, which will just never measure up to its French rival. After two years, this city still leaves me in awe. If there ever were an appropriate moment to bring up the book’s eponymous quotation, so famous it’s devolved into cliché, it’s now: “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.” Touché.