A Moveable Feast

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never been a fan of Ernest Hemingway. Years ago, I read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, and while I could see the appeal of Hemingway’s terse, stripped-down style and the themes he addresses, I didn’t enjoy his books much. I found him too macho, too simplistic, and a bit sausage-fingered when it came to what might have been very fine distinctions. I decided that I preferred W. Somerset Maugham (who does many of the same international settings and love triangles, but in what I think is a far more clever and sophisticated way) and dismissed Papa Hemingway to his legions of fans.

But a friend of mine kept at me and at me to read A Moveable Feast. She told me it was his best book. She told me it was different because it wasn’t a novel. She told me it was the book about Paris, how could I not read the book about expatriate Paris? So when I recently went on a short vacation (with Teresa, I might add!) I picked it up. It’s short. What was the real risk?

And, of course, I surprised myself by enjoying every minute of it, and by revising my opinion of Hemingway as a writer and as a human being. The book is a series of essays about Hemingway’s life as a young expatriate writer in Paris. He and his wife Hadley were grindingly poor, because Hemingway gave up his journalistic career to focus on fiction writing, so quite a few of the essays are about the little tricks of the trade of poverty: how to eat and drink and smoke and buy books and make love in Paris when you’ve got no reassurance that any money is coming in from anywhere. Other essays are about the people he knew in that great city. There are at least two essays about Gertrude Stein, and a couple of others about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. There’s a marvelous one about skiing in Switzerland, that reaches right down to the heart of what happens when someone who is in love with his wife falls in love with another woman as well.

All through these essays run two strains: the visible efforts of a very young man to perfect his writing, and a loving tribute of a man to his beloved wife. Hemingway writes in one essay after another, no matter what the topic ostensibly is, how hard he was working. He sat in cafés, day after day, and pared down his paragraphs to nearly nothing at all, trying to make his readers experience what they read, and not just read it. He tried to write what was important to him. He worked harder and harder, and he did it for the joy of it. And there, supporting him in that joy, was Hadley, his first wife and mother of his son. They were close during that time, lovers and friends. Hemingway’s rueful account in “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” of how he ruined and lost that love and that closeness is painful and has the ring of truth (unlike, say, his assessment of Zelda Fitzgerald.)

By the end of the book, I had a new respect for Hemingway. I don’t think I’m likely to run out and read more of his novels, but I now think of him as someone who valued honesty and wit, who worked at his craft, who respected women (or, at any rate, one woman), and who could admit mistakes. If a memoir can show that kind of decency, and also show me Paris, it’s more than worth my time.

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30 Responses to A Moveable Feast

  1. Rob says:

    I’m really, really happy you enjoyed A Moveable Feast, Jenny because it remains one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a magnificent read – as you’ve found out – and it gives a thorough insight not only into the man himself, but into some of the greatest literary figures of the period. No other book has made me want to wander the streets of 1920s Paris more than A Moveable Feast. It’s simply exquisite.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Rob! Yes, I really liked this book. It won me over despite my (mild) prejudices. Hemingway made me laugh, something I didn’t expect, and was far more insightful than I was ready for. A lovely book.

  2. chasing bawa says:

    I got this for my father just before our trip to Paris and he has been raving on and on about it (because he loves Paris and he loves Hemingway.) I may have to get my own copy if I want to read it! I read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ years ago on my father’s recommendation and didn’t really warm to it, although I found ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ a little better. However, I’m looking forward to reading ‘A Moveable Feast’ and ‘The Sun Also Rises’.

  3. Nicole says:

    This is interesting. I really dislikes The Sun Also Rises for all of the reasons that you menton and I thought the characters were annoying to boot, but I did enjoy one of his short stories, so maybe there is hope if I stay away from the novels.

    • Jenny says:

      See, that’s the thing. You just never know, in my view. Not that I’m going to keep reading every work an author’s ever written, just to see, but sometimes they surprise you.

  4. christina says:

    “sausage fingers”. LOL. Really. I almost spilt my coffee.

    Here’s my thing about Papa Hemmingway – outside the fact that he’s a wee bit chauvinistic, even though every biography and historical tour deems him to be a hopeless romantic – I confuse his books to easily.

    Whew. That was a lot of ‘asides’ to get to the point, huh?

    But it’s true. I couldn’t tell you what happened in what books because they all blurred together, thus seeming quite forgettable in the “unique to themselves” sorta way.

    (Er, like HP series. I read them all in a matter of days – except the last one – and by the end of the manic HP moments I couldn’t decipher which book had what evilness in it.)

    I’m glad you liked A Moveable Feast. Perhaps I will try it.

    • Jenny says:

      Actually, Christina, I have the same problem! I always have to look up synopses of his books to remember which I’ve read. I wonder why that is. And I had the same exact problem with the Harry Potter books! Enjoyable but forgettable. Oh well. I am clearly out of the mainstream there.

  5. JoAnn says:

    A Moveable Feast has been near the top of my tbr pile for the past four months, but I always seem to pick up whatever is under it first! Your review makes that a lot less likely to happen again. Thanks!

  6. Dear Blogmaster–

    Amazing how similar our experiences. I too have never much cared for Hemingway and had attributed to him the single-handed destruction of much that was good in literature and fiction. But recently I’ve gone back and I’ve read the Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast and my reaction was quite different from my first encounters with either book. And, I also loved A Moveable Feast–perhaps the most accessbile, insightful, and indicative of Hemingway’s works. Thanks for the review.



    • Jenny says:

      Steven, thanks for your comment — I agree that sometimes when we go back and try again, things appeal to us differently. I would never say that Hemingway destroyed what was good in literature, but his style has certainly influenced many people! At any rate, this book shows how very hard he worked at it, which counts for something in my view.

  7. I’ve never read Hemingway, or even been too interested in him- I just knew his reputation, and it didn’t impress me. But I think this might be just the right place to start with him. Thanks, Teresa!

  8. Steph says:

    I was just saying over at The Zen Leaf that I’ve only read one Hemingway, and that was ages ago and it really didn’t make an impression on me. I sort of feel that he’s not going to be an author that I love, but I’m going to give him another try and see how we get on… I’ll remember that even if I don’t love his fiction, I might prefer his non-fiction. As you said, if he’s writing about Paris, how bad can it be? ;)

    • Jenny says:

      Well, exactly! And I usually (though cautiously) think that if someone is a famous and classic author, there’s probably something to his or her reputation. The books may not be my style or preference, but there’s probably *something* to them.

  9. Jenny says:

    I dislike Hemingway massively, largely because of the chauvinistic crap I’ve seen in the one book of his I read–The Sun Also Rises, in college English. And as well I was mad at him for writing a mean poem making fun of Dorothy Parker’s suicide attempt. I have vowed never to bother with him ever again; but as so often happens when I read book blogs, I am reconsidering.

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, see? In this memoir he’s not chauvinistic at all. Quite the reverse, in fact. He may not like individual women, but it’s not a manly thing. I definitely recommend you try it and see if your preconceptions are not at least a bit roiled up, which is always fun.

  10. Emily says:

    So interesting to read different peoples’ experiences of Hemingway! I actually really love a lot of his work – the Nick Adams stories, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and some of his other short stories (“Hills Like White Elephants,” for example, which reveals a lot more sympathy for women than he usually gets credit for. He does have misogynist attitudes, but frankly so did most people writing in the 1920s.) I also liked A Movable Feast, but not as much as my favorites of his fiction – weirdly, as much as I adore reading about Paris, I love Hemingway best when he gets out of the city and into the woods/plains/rivers. But I do love that scene where he’s wandering around feeling sorry for himself because he’s hungry, and then he gives himself a stern talking-to and is like “Come on, Hemingway, you chose this life and there’s a lot to love about it! Stop whining!” And I totally agree with you that his relationship with Hadley in these essays is a high point – so sincere and tender.

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, thanks for these great recommendations! I didn’t say I found Hemingway misogynist, I said I found him macho. You know, strrrrong like bull, can’t… talk… about… feelings, stuff like that. And I also think that just because a lot of people were misogynist then (or now) is no excuse for it. But if you’re going to pick and choose macho or misogynist writers, I just like a different style, that’s all. Give me Maugham nine times out of ten! But I’ll try some of Hemingway’s short stories. I trust your taste implicitly.

  11. J.G. says:

    I’m a huge Hemingway fan and this is a lovely book, one of my favorites. It does put stars in one’s eyes. But it’s just as full of the Hemingway junk as the others. It’s just differently and very effectively packaged.

    (Yeesh, am I the wet blanket here, or what?)

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think it’s wet-blanketing to say you’re a huge fan and this is one of your favorite books! I might agree that this has some of the same attributes as his other books. But it also reveals some different aspects of his personality that I hadn’t seen before. I really appreciated that.

      • J.G. says:

        Yeah, he’s still posing, but it’s a much more attractive pose! :-)

        Part of the charm, I think, is that he wrote this much later, so it has the glow of nostalgia and he has the mature technique to really deliver the experience.

        So glad you enjoyed it!

  12. Caroline says:

    This book has a very special meaning for me as I lived just across from the house Hemingway lived in while I was still in Paris. It is one of the lesser known parts in Paris located near the Place de La Contrescarpe which you all need to see when next in Paris. It is not one of those wide, big places Paris is known for but a small square like they are found in cities like Rome. Far away from the big boulevards.
    I really enjoyed that you chose to review this.
    As for Hemingway, I must admit I like him. For whom the bell tolls has quite poetical moments. He is just a typical example of a very stereotypical masculine way to deal with pain. Apparently psychologists found out that women are prone to depression whereas men are prone to be become alcoholics.
    Anyway, I truly abhor his bullfighter/hunter personality

    • Jenny says:

      Caroline, I loved hearing about your Paris experience! Thank you for sharing it. And I’m sure you’re right about his reaction to pain.

  13. Rebecca Reid says:

    I likewise have not really enjoyed the Hemingway I’ve read. I’m glad to hear this one is satisfying and different.

  14. Melissa says:

    I completely agree with you about Hemingway. I’ve never loved his novels, but A Moveable Feast remains one of my all time favorites. You might try his short stories. I’ve foudn that his minimalistic style works better there.

  15. Amanda says:

    I’m glad to hear that you liked it and it changed your opinion of Hemingway! I love The Old Man and the Sea and From Whom the Bell Tolls, but recently read Farewell to Arms and didn’t like it at all. I hope The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast are better for me, and i have high hopes for the latter.

  16. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: A Moveable Feast, Manhood for Amateurs « The Literary Omnivore

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