By Liat Faver
A note at the beginning tells us Ernest Hemingway worked on A Moveable Feast for years after it was first written, and made more revisions after it was finished. Feast takes place mostly in Paris between 1921 and 1926, with side trips to smaller French towns and a ski trip to Austria.
Hemingway starts with descriptions of the Café des Amateurs that he avoids because it houses “dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness” (1). We begin to feel “all of the sadness of the city,” that “came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street” (2). Hemingway depicts his settings clearly, putting the reader in a chair at his table. This is the Hemingway I know and love; the one through whom I live vicariously, and well.
Hemingway tells himself to “write the truest sentence that you know,” and if he finds he is writing “elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something,” he can remove “that scrollwork or ornament . . . and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” (7). He makes a point of not thinking of his topics while he isn’t writing, so his ideas will be fresh when he returns to them.
In a detailed portrait of a spring morning, we join him in his room where “the windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain.” A goatherd approaches, stopping to sell fresh milk to a neighbor and “went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing” (27). This paragraph, uncluttered and easy, is one the reader wants to revisit, to savor colors, textures, scents and sounds. He brings us so close we feel we are a living strand of his hair, or the sweat on the bill of his cap “in the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks” (48).
What Hemingway does best is engage the reader by mixing us in on his color palette. He writes from an interior dwelling that makes us feel we are living inside his mind, behind his eyes. When he meets Scott Fitzgerald and begins a journey with him and Zelda, his story turns outward, and we see less of his creative process. His thoughts revolve around Fitzgerald’s dysfunctions, and his illustrations become ordinary, almost predictable, and less interesting.
A Moveable Feast is not a bad book, but it left me feeling I’d had a great appetizer and only a few bites of the main course. Perhaps its value lies in revealing the youthful Hemingway, with his awkward sentence structure and naïve vantage point. Painful lessons are learned, and we find ourselves, in the beginning, loving his immaturity and, in the end, loathing his betrayal of his wife, Hadley, and ultimately, himself.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. London: Arrow Books. 1936. Print.