Ever since I watched Midnight in Paris (which I loved) I’ve been meaning to read A Movable Feast. The book is a memoir of Ernest Hemmingway’s years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920’s. Although it is Hemingway’s story, it is also about so many other writers and artists who were called ‘the lost generation’. Most importantly it is about Paris.
This isn’t written like a traditional autobiography, in that there is no chronological progression of the story. In fact there is no ‘one’ story but a series of sketches on different people and different seasons. Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, T .S .Eliot, James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald, all feature in this tale. As does Hemingway’s first wife Hadley whom he loves more than life itself (until he leaves her for another woman).
Generally, I find Hemingway’s style of writing too bone dry for my taste. His declarative statements and his way of using a dozen ‘ands’ in each sentence gets a bit tiring after awhile (“ you lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is dangerous...”). But in A Movable Feast, this works. When writing of a beloved city, one is always in danger of sounding like a tourist brochure. Hemingway’s writing keeps things crisp and fresh.
There are times when this book reads like a gossip magazine, featuring literary icons instead of the latest it-girls. Hemingway is merciless with those he does not like and not any gentler with those he does like. Gertrude Stein is pictured as vain, Wyndham Lewis had the ‘face of an unsuccessful rapist’, Ernest Walsh was a conman and Zelda Fitzgerald a shrew. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t come off too well either but to be fair; Hemingway is unstintingly appreciative of Fitzgerald’s writing. “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.” Hemingway obviously saw himself as an alpha male, the undisputed hero of the book with not a single blemish on him. The critical eye and the poison pen that he lavishes on everyone else are never once directed at himself. Even in the matter of the affair which broke his first marriage, Hemingway lays the blame entirely at the door of the supposedly manipulative ‘other woman’ who plotted to trap innocent ol’ Hem.
However, one can almost forgive him his vanity when he writes of Paris. That is when the text really sings. There is no artifice or pettiness. Hemingway shows you the Paris he loved. The bookshops, the cafes and their waiters, the fishermen and the goat herds. (http://hemingwaysparis.blogspot.com/ has some great photos of the places and people Hemingway writes about.) There are also some really amusing anecdotes like the one about Ford Maddox Ford ‘cutting’ a man and the one where Scott Fitzgerald is convinced he is about to die of lung congestion. Stories like these, besides being immensely enjoyable also give you a sense of that time and its people
A Movable Feast is a prejudiced, yet enjoyable ode to Paris and the writers and artists that made up Hemingway’s immediate circle. The Lost Generation and their fascinating lives make for great reading although they don't seem any more ‘lost’ than our own.