When I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife, a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction, which is what led me to A Moveable Feast. He has been much discussed, not only as a writer, but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living. Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, then a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Hemingway very much lived the stories of love and danger that fill his novels.
He also knew nearly all of the literary greats of his day and was himself an overnight success with the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Always wary of losing his own authentic voice by being sucked into the world of wealth that surrounded him, he frequently took dangerous writing assignments that put him into the front lines of conflict. He loved outdoor sports and had a life-long fascination with bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting that appears again and again in his work. But for all the dangerous and exhilarating pursuits, it was alcohol that would get him in the end, destroying his ability to write, from both a physical and mental perspective. His last book, his memoir A Moveable Feast, is frequently cited as proof that his talent was declining. And yet, A Moveable Feast was still a delight for me, as I fell into the enchantment of Hemingway’s distinct cadence, sharp dialogue and forthright description of the glittering literary expatriate world of Paris.
Oh, how I love the dialogue of Hemingway. As a writer, I can’t help but admire how well he describes character through dialogue. It is the work of a master. When he first meets Gertrude Stein, he writes:
‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said.
‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do
both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention
at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort
and durability, and you will have the clothes money to
”But even if I never bought any more clothing ever,’ I
said, ‘I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the
Picassos that I want.’
‘No. He’s out of your range. You have to buy the
people of your own age – of your own military service
group. You’ll know them. You’ll meet them around the
There’s just no one that writes dialogue like Ernest Hemingway. I can only sit back and admire the eloquently rhythmic exchanges, enjoying the beautiful simplicity of the language.
When Hemingway arrived in Paris, he was a young man and an unknown in literary circles. Thanks to an introduction by Sherwood Anderson, who had mentored him back home, he was able to enter the same social circles of the most famous Modernist writers. A Movable Feast is a tell-all memoir about many of the famous people that he knew; Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald feature prominently, with chapters devoted to Hemingway’s relationship with each of them. He gives us his impressions of them, both from his perspective as a young man and the perspective of his older self — the mature and confident writer that he became. When Hemingway describes his first meeting of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he writes that
Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the colouring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.
It’s moments like these that make A Moveable Feast so enjoyable. The modernists were larger than life people, so Hemingway’s memories of them are delightful for literature fans. Although the book could run the risk of sounding like a gossip column, it is Hemingway’s devotion to writing that saves it. When he criticizes the relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is because of its affect on Fitzgerald’s work. He writes:
He was always trying to work. Each day he would try and fail. He laid the failure to Paris, the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is and he thought always that there would be some place where he and Zelda could have a good life together again.
As a memoir, there is not much in the way of insight into Hemingway himself — but A Moveable Feast can sometimes be painful in its honesty about the other writers. When he writes about Gertrude Stein that “she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible, although she needed to have publication and official acceptance, especially for the unbelievably long book called The Making of Americans,” I couldn’t help but wince for Stein. Yet, having read The Making of Americans, I have to agree with his commentary. Still, it’s painful to read such a public pronouncement of his opinion of someone he once considered a friend, and made me wonder about the cost to the author about writing so truthfully in a memoir. A Movable Feast was published posthumously by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway a few years after his suicide. Would Hemingway himself would have gone forth so bravely? I suspect, given the courage with which he lived his life, that he probably would have .
This concern with the writing that the modernists were producing drives the book, which provides fascinating insight into how these writers work. We learn predominantly of Hemingway’s own routines as a young writer and hear his version of the famous lost manuscripts. He ends the book with the publication of The Sun Also Rises, telling us about his transformation from journalist to novelist and the failure of his first marriage. Given the celebrity and curiosity surrounding Hemingway as a man, it’s a must-read for any Hemingway enthusiast — and an excellent companion to The Paris Wife.