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.