Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday’s Forgotten Books: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

I rarely reread a book. As a kid, I may have given a Hardy Boy's mystery a second go-around, but there have been few others. One book I’ve read within the last few months that I thought deserved a revisit is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which followed closely on the heels of By-Line: Ernest Hemingway.

Now, I'm not an outdoorsman and I've never been to a bullfight, so reading about hunting, fishing, and bullfighting has never really appealed to me unless Hemingway wrote about them. But Feast is not about these favorite topics of his; this is his account of his time in 1920s Paris as a struggling writer living with his wife and son in meager conditions and his encounters with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald, etc. (perhaps only Dorothy Parker's round table is comparable in terms of the sheer talent hanging out together).

Feast is on the top of my Hemingway heap, with the best parts of the book being his musings on his peers. On F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."

Beautiful, stark imagery as Hemingway contributed to the Fitzgerald myth of the doomed writer. The passages about Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were truly harrowing, and Hemingway blamed most of Fitzgerald’s downfall on Zelda. Is what we’re reading factual, partially factual or a re-write of history? Zelda and Hemingway disliked each other immensely.
“[Zelda] described him as ‘bogus’, and ‘phoney as a rubber check’. She considered Hemingway's domineering macho persona to be merely a posture; Hemingway in turn, told Scott that Zelda was crazy.” [Wikipedia]

He referred to Fitzgerald as his friend and you get a genuine sense that he cared for the man. But his fierce competitiveness left few of his author friends, like Fitzgerald, unscathed. I'm a student of his writing but I'm damn glad I wasn't a successful contemporary of Hemingway’s.

Writer and art collector, Gertrude Stein appeared to be a generous supporter of the early Hemingway and she was even godmother to his son, Bumby. The early chapters were devoted to Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, who had graciously invited the Hemingway’s to stop by their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. Stein took an interest in young talent and seemed to relish the role of nurturing them. Hemingway was no exception and she became his mentor in literature and art. However, their relationship ended abruptly when Ernest stopped by unexpectedly, overhearing an argument between Stein and Toklas, who were unaware that he had been let in by the maidservant. Hemingway wrote about the lover’s quarrel, painting Stein in an unflattering, submissive role. Ernest made a quick dash for the door as the maidservant said, “Don’t go. She’ll be right down.” His reply, “I have to go,” was humorous.

Ford Maddox Ford, author and critic, was introduced as "breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself as uptight as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead" and described as egotistical and jumpy.

But Hemingway could also be gracious and when describing Ezra Pound, he also shed a little more light on his own character. “Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamored of his errors, and so kind to people that I always thought of him as a sort of saint.”

Stein, Fitzgerald and Ford all preceded Hemingway in death, and one is left to wonder why he had depicted his friends in such an unfavorable manner. Perhaps ego? But he had already been heralded as the greatest writer of the 20th century at that point. Maybe he just told the facts and simply recorded history. Whatever the case, his accounts, though harsh, are equally fascinating, and it’s impossible not to be intrigued by this novel.

According to his fourth wife, Mary, Hemingway started Feast in 1957 and was working on it at the time of his suicide; it was published posthumously in 1964. There was some controversy that she had deleted a great deal of material concerning his first wife Hadley. So who knows what the final product of Feast would have looked like had he lived. Would it have been published at all? Hemingway had left a mass of unpublished material that he never intended to see the light of day. Obviously, any writer begins a book with the intention of publishing it, but maybe he would have toned down some of the descriptions; but then again, if he had, it wouldn't be half as fun. In an age where everybody writes tell-alls and confessionals, A Moveable Feast is a great read.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

Probably my favorite Hemingway. Thanks for recalling it.

David Cranmer said...

No problem Patti. I enjoy participating.