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  • RJ Smith

Hemingway in Paris: Reflections on A Moveable Feast


Hemingway with Sylvia Beach outside the latter's book store, Shakespeare & Co.

There are certain facts many people know about Ernest Hemingway without ever reading one of his books. He was an American writer who lived in Paris and Cuba. He was a drinker, a boxer, a soldier, a poet. He won the Nobel Prize for literature and took his own life in the early 1960s.


But none of this tells you much about Hemingway the man. A Moveable Feast is the American writer's most comprehensive and revealing memoir, and was particularly interesting to me as an expatriate living in Paris nearly a hundred years after the events it describes. Here are the insights from the book I found most intriguing.


1. Hemingway never learned French


Hemingway read the French newspapers and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. But by all accounts his French did not ascend above a basic level after more than six years of living in France. A few factors might help to explain this.


First, there were 40,000 Americans living in Paris in Hemingway's time, around three times the amount living here today. Paris then was like Berlin today: international, libertine (prohibition was in effect in the United States) and cheaper than most other world cities.


Second, while Hemingway learned Spanish later in life and enjoyed speaking it, he was not especially taken by the French. In a 1925 letter to Ezra Pound he said: “Are some nice Y[ou]ng Spanish writers not near so full of shit as ... French writers.”


Patrice Higonnet, a professor of French history at Harvard University says that the Lost Generation expats: “did not speak French and were uninterested in the art or culture of the French people around them.”


This is a slight exaggeration. Hemingway cited Cezanne as his greatest influence. It is true, however, that he lived in Paris for what it had to offer him as an artist rather than for a French cultural experience. He was probably referring to the city's fertile artistic milieu when he said:


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.


2. He was never hard up


It is often thought that Hemingway was broke in his Paris years, a myth which the writer does little to dispel in A Moveable Feast. In certain passages Hemingway resembles the nameless narrator in Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger, having quit his job as a journalist to dedicate himself to writing. But several facts undermine the idea that Hemingway’s experiences in Paris were akin to those George Orwell describes in his own memoir about life as a plongeur.


Hadley, Hemingway's wife throughout most of his time in Paris, was financially comfortable, having inherited a small fortune after her father's death.


Even based on Hemingway’s own words in the book the couple lived a typical upper middle class existence. A Moveable Feast recounts a couple eating out most of the time, skiing in Austria every winter, retiring to Spain for bull fights in the summers. They had a femme de ménage (maid) and paid an old French couple to mind their child.


Professor Higonnet, the Harvard historian, is probably correct when he says: “For Hemingway and most of his friends, Paris was one long binge, all the more enjoyable because it wasn’t very expensive.” If only it were like that today. . .


3. He was not a very pleasant man


Hemingway’s writing is rarely funny, and above all his prose betrays an unswerving self-seriousness. A Moveable Feast reveals that he was not just austere but occasionally callous. He cheated on Hadley with (and subsequently married) her best friend who joined the couple for holidays in Austria and Spain. Hemingway expresses contrition about this in the book. But other passages leave little room for doubt about his capacity for meanness.


In the chapter entitled "The Birth of a New School", a young admirer chances upon Hemingway in a café where he was working. “Listen,” Hemingway says to the hapless stranger. “A bitch like you has plenty of places to go. Why do you have to come here and louse a decent café?”


4. He was close with F. Scott Fitzgerald, also an unpleasant character


Legend has it that it was James Joyce with whom Hemingway went drinking in the Montparnasse quarter of the 1920s. In the book Hemingway mentions meeting Joyce and seeing him around, but does not put it any higher than this. He does describe a close relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, which is intriguing given they would become the two most significant American novelists of the period.


The portrait Hemingway constructs of Fitzgerald, like the one he constructs of himself, is not flattering. Fitzgerald would get blackout drunk and have to be carried home, protected and apologised for by his friends and hangers on. On one occasion Fitzgerald berates a medical student on a train for no reason, and on another abuses a hotel porteur for not having a thermometer to take his temperature.


It is often said that writers should wait until reaching 30 before writing a novel. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were exceptional in that they wrote their best works earlier (at 27 and 29 respectively). But perhaps they would have been better and happier (both died by effective suicide) people had success been a little harder to come by.


5. Things were easier then


Paris is a social city now and it was a social city then. A striking difference between then and now, however, is how fluid and accessible all of the most culturally significant figures of the period were. Hemingway recounts being given access to to the whole of Sylvia Beach's library at Shakespeare and Company for free after his first visit. He would enter a café for a casual chat with Ford Maddox Ford with no prior introduction, dine in a restaurant and be introduced to James Joyce, visit Gertrude Stein’s salon as though it were his own house for a chat with Picasso.


Even more remarkable by today's standards is the fact that Hemingway set sail for New York in 1925 for an audience with the heads of a handful of major publishing houses to discuss his debut novel before he had even finished editing it, and after striking a deal had it published a few months later.


Things seem much harder now. Then again. I have met writers, designers and photographers pursuing their dreams in Paris. Perhaps it is hard to imagine that things will work out for some of us some day. Or perhaps what is lost is not Hemingway's generation but the opportunities that the period afforded him and his contemporaries.


Whatever the case, A Moveable Feast is an interesting record of a man radically committed to his craft who was in the right place at the right time, a heady mixture that would change English prose forever.

© 2020 RJ Smith.