Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ is a novel that was published posthumously. The book was born from a journal found in a suitcase in The Ritz for almost thirty years. Hemingway had been having lunch in 1956 with the hotel’s chairman when he was asked if he was aware that he had left trunks there in 1930. Ernest did not remember leaving them there, but he vaguely remembered that Louis Vuitton had gifted him a trunk. He eventually had them brought up to his room, and when he opened them, he found a journal containing notes from his time in Paris. This memoir details Ernest Hemingway’s experiences in 1920s Paris. There has and always will be a romantic smog to the dreams we have of Paris. Hemingway captures that beautifully in this short book.
He details his daily eating and drinking routine in the pretty cafés that lined the streets. Squirrelling away at his writing, Hemingway would make astute observations about the people around him. A lot of famous writers make appearances. Some of those include; Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Zelda Fitzgerald, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There is a candid honesty in his writing which he is famous for. I am a fan of beautiful language, but flowery language isn’t needed when discussing such a poetic city. Paris is an entity all on its own. For Hemingway, the city was like a lover you once spent time with and subsequently had to leave behind. Their spirit remains imprinted on your soul for the rest of your life.
He is a master at documenting experiences. Hemingway describes the food of Paris like no other writer ever could.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
His evocative descriptions make you feel as though you can taste what he is tasting, hearing what he is hearing, and seeing what he is seeing. As a writer, I dream of sitting in the Les Deux Magots and creating something extraordinary. Paris seems to be a magnet for creative genius, and I think Hemingway was well aware of that.
As I mentioned, Paris is its own entity. Everything that happened there could only have occurred in that city. It could almost be classed as its very own literary device. Hemingway is merely the vessel through which Paris can speak plainly. During the chapter where he meets Gertrude Stein, Hemingway laments their meeting and certain hypocrisies that he perceives.
“I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental illness versus discipline, and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?”
Miss Stein had made various observations about his work and other writers. These same observations appear to have come from her ambition. As a lauded writer, it can only be expected that some sense of ego would come into play. Hemingway makes no bones about his feelings towards Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson. The artistic community during that time was competitive and thriving.
She saw herself as the authority on the writers of the time, going so far as to question Ernest Hemingway on why he desires to read a book by a dead man. They ultimately went on to have a famous feud when Miss Stein described him as physically frail and accident-prone. She even went so far as to take credit for Hemingway’s success. Understandably, he was furious with the suggestion.
The most exciting chapters of this book are where Ernest Hemingway meets F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. Here, we get a true insight into the chaotic mind of a writer. One night, a drunk Fitzgerald is so convinced that he will die that he orders Hemingway to take his temperature with a thermometer. The hotel only has a bath thermometer, but he convinces Fitzgerald that he is not dying. He spends the rest of the night trying to placate Fitzgerald by plying him with more alcohol.
‘A Moveable Feast’ is a beautiful memoir, simply a freeze-frame of a different time. It expertly captures the essence of Paris and shows it to be its own branch of philosophy. In July of 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. I believe that his memoir is the permanent prison of a young Hemingway where he was once full of hope and dreams.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 of occlusive coronary atherosclerosis. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway suffered throughout their lives, yet they both changed literature forever. Some may theorise that Paris was a contributing factor to their unhappiness, but I feel that Hemingway would say otherwise. He knew that you could leave Paris, but that it would never leave you, as illustrated by this quote:
“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.”