"Lost Generation", A Moveable Feast, biography, Book Review, Eraserhead, Ernest Hemingway, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Garden of Eden, Gertrude Stein, Gore Vidal, James Joyce, Kevin Birmingham, Leley M.M. Blume, Literature, masculinity, memoir, Novel, Palimpsest, Paris, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The "Lost" Generation, The Great Gatsby, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, World War I, Writers, Writing
So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.
–Obi-Wan, Return of the Jedi
Memoirs can be damned frustrating, mostly because they avoid outright classification. There’s some impulse to distrust the memoir, because it’s not objective like the biography, likewise there is even more distrust than the kind one saves for autobiographies, for even though these books are largely one sided affairs there is still some level of objective aesthetic goals. This is all just a fancy-pants way of saying that you can’t trust memoirs completely because the writers writing them are remembering impressions and feelings from events in their life rather than trying to write out a purely factual narrative of what was going on in their lives.
A good example of this is when Gore Vidal in an interview on Charlie Rose once remarked on his own memoir Palimpsest, which for the record is a term for a manuscript which original writing has been effaced or scrubbed out for later and newer writing leaving only traces of the original, that his book wasn’t an autobiography because of the way memory works. He gives the example that when you break your leg when you’re younger and look back on the experience at a later age you don’t remember the actual trauma, you just remember your earliest remembering of the trauma and so the writing becomes like a palimpsest stacking upon itself. This idea is intriguing when considering human memory, and I’m tempted to think of the explanation for the foundation of reality where all of existence is really just a disk resting on the back of a turtle which is standing on another turtle’s back till it’s “turtles all the way down,” but that would be getting rather poetic and cosmological and since my focus in this essay is Ernest Hemingway, poetics really isn’t all that necessary.
In fact I’m sure Hemingway would say “Bull to that” and tell me to shoot straighter.
I tried once to read A Moveable Feast when I was still in my Hemingway phase. It was a phase I think every young man who wants to become a writer goes through at some point, because Hemingway commands such respect, or disrespect, and the man has an aura of firm masculinity that I think beckons the young men who are trying to figure out who they want to be as men. You’re told by teachers and Hemingway afficiando’s, and your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving, that Hemingway was a man’s-man, and one of the last “great writers.” For the record I have yet to read anything that gives the model of this species known as “great writers” and have come to the conclusion that they’re like blue whales or the movie Eraserhead. You know it when you see it.
When I was younger I was told that Hemingway was great and so I read him thinking that if I read enough of his “great” prose then maybe I would become great.
Well, I read it. I read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a few of the Nick Stories, the Garden of Eden, and started For Whom the Bell Tolls. And here I am. Greatness isn’t exactly what happened. Really I’m just a guy who read Hemingway when he could have been talking to girls. Eventually Hemingway’s luster faded and I moved to Stephen King who promised me swear words, sex, monsters, and average everyday people encountering the supernatural.
A Moveable Feast has always beckoned though and so when I had the chance between starting my first teaching job and graduating with my masters I sat down and read about his days in Paris. The memoir is in fact just a small moment of Hemingway’s life, and was written long after he had moved from Paris and had become the writer he became. In 1956 Hemingway was bouncing between several manuscripts and during that time of creative shoots and ladders he managed to retrieve two chests he had had stored in the basement of Hotel Ritz Paris. Both chests contained notebooks which themselves contained notes about the period of 1928 when Hemingway was a young man, newly married (to his first wife, let’s be clear), and working on the manuscript that would become his first novel The Sun Also Rises. During this time Hemingway encountered people who would, in their own right, alter the world through their writing and that isn’t poetics on my part. Again the little Hemingway on my shoulder is jabbing me with his pitchfork whenever I try to be pretty in my writing. In the book Hemingway meets and comes to develop friendships with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Silvia Beach and Adreienne Monier, and two little unknown people called Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The little Hemingway poked me again for that last one.
I came to the conclusion, while reading it, that A Moveable Feast was the most enjoyable Hemingway book that I had ever read, but that pleasure came after years away from the man. Hemingway, and it’s easy to forget this because of the miasma of chauvinism that surrounds his work, is a damn fine writer and can create beautiful moments that resonate because of their simple quality. A Moveable Feast isn’t just a long series of musings about the power of creativity, it’s about just meeting the odd and wonderful people who were making the art that helped shape the creative literary stage of the 20th Century.
Part of that company were two women who owned a small bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, and while they themselves did not achieve literary greatness, they at least helped the ones who would. Early in the book Hemingway discusses, visiting the bookshop:
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit anytime I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished. (35)
For the record “she” is Sylvia Beach, the woman who would eventually publish James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Hemingway continues this initial encounter with a bit of dialogue which only further demonstrates this woman’s selflessness
“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll be back to Pay,” I said. “I have some money in thee flat.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.”
“When does Joyce come in?”
“If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen him?”
“We’ve seen him at Michaud’s eating with his family,” I said. “But it’s not polite to look at people when they are eating, and Michaud’s is expensive.” (36)
At the start this exchange does not seem terribly important, but I would argue that in fact that it is. The simplicity of the exchange reveals what kind of life Hemingway was living in Paris at the time, and the casual way he asks about Joyce while remarking about the proprieties of eating out only furthers this sensation. I’ve written before about the aura that surrounds authors and writers in culture, and so when A Moveable Feast tries to deconstruct that aura, showing the writers and artists of the day as a group of struggling, hungry people it goes a long way in deconstructing that myth. There is I think a little romanticism going on in this book, and probably in this exchange, but reading it I got the sense of Hemingway as a young man who’s looking forward and looking to a life that could be his.
Paris becomes a creative landscape where a great number of people are trying to build the foundations of a great literary career. This especially becomes apparent when Hemingway briefly discusses his relationship with Ezra Pound:
Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet. (110)
Pound is the poet who has suffered in recent times because his Anti-Semitism has been made more and more apparent. You’ll note that I’m only furthering this problem by making that my first point about the man. As always when dealing with great artists who have shitty-personal opinions (whether it be John Wayne’s Racism or Christopher Hitchens’s chauvinism) I’ll always defend the art first. If I can at least make one defense for the man, Hemingway certainly demonstrates that Pound was a man who cared deeply for art and artists. I suspect every creative community has a figure like this, the successful father-mother artist who watches out for the aspiring younger crowd desperate to achieve some kind of success. I’ve experienced some element of this character when I was part of a creative writing class, and I understand the importance of having such a person near you. While on one level there is a competition to “out-art” the other person at the same time there is a parental dynamic where you also don’t want to disappoint them.
Pound was not the only guardian and mentor Hemingway had in Paris for Gertrude Stein, a novelist and art collector, helped him, as well as the other writers of his generation, establish their creative locus. Early in the book Hemingway visits Stein in her house and she tells him plainly:
“That’s what you are. That what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….” (29)
Now before I get to the long lasting social significance of that line I should note that Hemingway later explains part of that problem when he addresses the fact that he wasn’t eating much at the time. He writes,
When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink. (101)
On another side note this partially explains the sensation of reading Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises because the book is largely nothing but people drinking, eating, fishing, eating, drinking, fishing, and eating some more. For that reason alone A Moveable Feast Goes a long way in validating much of Hemingway’s work, or at least his early books when that hunger was both literal and metaphorical.
But if I can return to Stein’s comments it’s worth noting how crucial that line was for generations of scholars and general fans of the ex-patriot American writers. Stein’s dismissal can at first appear to be nothing more than the typical generational disagreements which form between people. The Baby-Boomers complain about Millennials lack of [X] while Millennials complain about Baby Boomers wrecking the [Y] and the passive aggressive shit-fit continues. Moving past this obviousness however Hemingway I think isn’t just recording this moment to make Stein look like a grumpy woman who sees her artistic generational influence passing on, rather, at this moment, Stein is helping Hemingway as best she can.
The phrase “Lost Generation” came about largely because Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, and the term stuck as generations of historians and literary theorists looked at the writing and general atmosphere of the time and realized that it worked as a functional classification. That’s all just a fancy-pants way of saying that World War I fucked Hemingway’s generation hard and left them wondering what anything, or everything, really meant.
It was in this atmosphere that Hemingway would meet one of the most important writers of his age: F. Scott Fitzgerald. And reading Hemingway describe the man after a while I came to the conclusion that there was no creature so pathetic as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had taken his pulse, which was seventy-two, and had felt his forehead, which was cool. I had listened to his chest and had him breathe deeply, and his chest sounded alright.
“Look Scott,” I said. “You’re perfectly O.K. If you want to do the best thing to keep from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whiskey and you take an aspirin with yours and you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head.”
“Those old wives’ remedies,” Scott said.
“You haven’t any temperature. How the hell are you going to have congestion of the lungs without a temperature?”
“Don’t swear at me,” Scott said. “How do you know I haven’t a temperature?”
“Your pulse is normal and you haven’t any fever to the touch.”
“To the touch,” Scott said bitterly. “If you’re a real friend get me a thermometer.”
“I’m in my pajamas.”
Send for one.” (165).
I deliberated on this quote before using it because some part of me wanted to be fair to Scott Fitzgerald, especially since several long chapters are dedicated to Hemingway describing their friendship and the various events these men experienced alongside one another. But honestly this is perhaps the best quote upon reflection because, as Hemingway describes the man, Fitzgerald becomes a whiney little tool who doesn’t appreciate his friends or else his own talents. This, of course, is everything. Hemingway beat Fitzgerald out in the end, not only by living longer, but also eventually in terms of critical recognition. The Great Gatsby was largely ignored during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, while Hemingway’s work achieved great notoriety eventually earning him a Nobel Prize. Because of this Hemingway gets to write the record of their relationship and so repeatedly during A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald appears to be nothing more than sickly whiner who doesn’t appreciate the gift he has.
While I’m sure some would take this as an opportunity to explore Hemingway’s possible fear of failure, I prefer focusing on the work as an exploration of writing. Hemingway is writing a book about the people he met in Paris and how those people helped shape those experiences into the writing that would bring him tremendous success.
As a book A Moveable Feast isn’t just Hemingway taking the opportunity to re-write who was and wasn’t nice to him in Paris, instead it’s akin to Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest where Hemingway is reliving the memory of memories while figuring out how he has become the writer he is. And that to me is the far more important relevance of reading this document. Even if the reader does not like Hemingway they cannot, and should not, underestimate the man’s influence upon prose and literature.
I read A Moveable Feast because at one point I went through a Hemingway Phase and wanted to see if Hemingway still had the aura that he originally had for me. While it wasn’t the same, I still felt, while reading, that I was observing an older writer writing his past and observing his own self in relation to others.
And so another small quote about Fitzgerald is necessary. Before Fitzgerald succumbs to his psychosomatic illness he is driving with Hemingway:
I was enthusiastic about the trip. I would have the company of an older and successful writer, and in the time we would have to talk in the car I would certainly learn much that it would be useful to know. It is strange now to remember thinking of Scott as an older writer, but at the time, since I had not yet read The Great Gatsby, I thought of him as a much older writer. (153).
The shift that takes place is everything. A Moveable Feast is written in small exchanges between people, and as the reader observes these people they also observe Hemingway observing himself. This style of writing is what good memoirs, great memoirs, should do. Rather than cold autobiography, which is almost always so much about “settling the score,” the memoir allows a writer a little more breathing room to just reflect on a few experiences and try to understand what they have come to mean to them personally. When Hemingway pauses to reflect on the fact that he once looked up to Scott Fitzgerald, a man he would eventually come to, not despise, but pity at least, there’s a great observable and human growth.
In my own life I’ve seen men and women who I looked up to as if they were gods, but as I’ve grown and come to know them better they’ve since fallen from the pedestal. This is sometimes a tragedy (often in the case of father figures), but often it’s simply part of growing older and recognizing that people are people and trying to paint them as anything else is silly and asanine.
The final impression then I guess is that reading A Moveable Feast is a great book because it affords the reader more than a chance to see Hemingway as a young writer who was about to publish A Sun Also Rises and begin an exceptional literary career, it’s the opportunity to see a great author as a young human being who was still learning, observing, and figuring out what life was. Even if the reader is not a fan of Hemingway’s creative work I do believe they would find a satisfaction in reading his memoir because it might afford them the chance to wonder about their own life, and question some of the experiences they’ve had or known. Life is about such small moments, when we allow ourselves to look back and realize so-and-so really was an asshole rather than a brilliant genius, and whats-her-name could have been great if she had just dumped so-and-so, and my god F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a d-bag and a whiner and I’m not just saying that because he stole my girlfriend.
He did but that’s not the point.
The point is A Moveable Feast is a great work of art, and a wonderful reminder of the miracle of growth. Time makes fools of those people we were and used to be, but in those recollections of people there’s still a burning truth of your own humanity. Those memories of memories are worth keeping, if only for the chance to figure out where you’ve come from and what was possible.
I found the Gore Vidal/Charlie Rose interview, which is actually a memorium for the life and work of Gore Vidal. You can find the man’s remarks about memoirs at about 7 minutes 30 seconds into the actual video, or about that range.
I originally intended to provide a few quotes from these books, because they deal with Paris during the time when Hemingway was writing, but I didn’t get around to them. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kenneth Birmingham is wonderful and Hemingway appears quite often throughout the work (he smuggled copies of Ulysses into America). Another great book which was just released is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M.M. Blume.
I mention these books because, as I noted several times throughout the essay, Hemingway is writing from his own perspective and as he writes in the Preface of A Moveable Feast:
For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. (ix).
As such, it might be a good idea to get an outsider’s opinion if you’re looking for a more objective view of the writer’s community in Paris during the 1920s.