Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven’t been to Paris, you just won’t get A Moveable Feast
If you aren’t already a fan of Hemingway, don’t bother reading A Moveable Feast

Look, I’m struggling to get a start on this review and those were the first two statements that popped into my head. I don’t know if they are true. I don’t know if they are fair. What I do know it that this work – fiction, memoir, sketches, a polished diary – whichever of these it may be – wouldn’t exist without Paris. Obviously, right? No, that’s not what I mean. I mean Paris is to writers as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. It’s all about terroir – that sense of place, climate, geography, culture that shape the flavor and texture of a thing. You can make great wine out of pinot grown in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile – but it will never, ever approximate the glory of Burgundy. Writers can write with greatness anywhere in the world, but a writer in Paris – and goodness, a writer in the vintage years of the early-mid 1920’s – is a singularly-blessed creature who may pour forth with words that change the world.

Hyperbole? Ah, well, I guess you’ve never been to Paris.

I bought a cheap, paperback copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Company last winter. I’d spent the day retracing the steps of the Lost Generation through the 5eme and 6eme Arrondissements: the Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rue Mouffetard, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, La Place Contrescarpe, Rue Descartes, Quai des Grands-Augustins — the haunts of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford as they drank and smoked and wrote their way between the wars. Other than the now-phony tourist traps of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore and the relocated Shakespeare and Company bookshop (opened in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951 after the original shop closed in 1941 during the Occupation of Paris), much is as I imagined it was in 1924. The light shines golden and bittersweet in the narrow streets, landlocked Parisians flock to chaises longues in the Luxembourg Gardens to soak up an unseasonably warm February sun, students at the Sorbonne crowd the coffee shops in between classes, smoking, flirting and speaking in a rapid-fire Parisian slang that I was hopeless to comprehend.

My paperback copy of A Moveable Feast is now dreadfully dog-eared. I have marked passage upon passage in which Hemingway talks about writing – he was so disciplined and therefore so productive – that weakened my knees: “I would stand and look out over the rooftops of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence, and go on from there.”

or about Paris: “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

or about wine “In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary… “

This is a collection of sketches of a writer as he remembers his happiest, purest days spent healing from the injuries and horrors of World War I, in love with a devoted wife and a round, sweet baby, being discovered by artists of influence and nurturing others through their own addictions and afflictions. Of course we know that Hemingway’s own story does not end well. As he pens what will become the final paragraphs of A Moveable Feast many years later, he recognizes how fragile and temporary were those years: “But we were not invulnerable and that was the end of the first part of Paris, and Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed…. this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Perhaps the one true condition of enjoying this memoir is that one must be an incurable romantic. An affliction I bear with pride.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

  1. I’ve just finished The Paris Wife, so it’s really interesting to read about A Moveable Feast, something which I might now move on to. Even without having picked the book up I get the sense, as Peter does, that Hemingway has romanticized his own past here.

    Oh, and hyperbole. But then I’ve never been to Paris.

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    1. Matthew, I couldn’t get past the first chapter of The Paris Wife. Perhaps picking it up so soon after finishing A Moveable Feast wasn’t the best plan. Hemingway’s voice was still ringing in my ears.

      I have no doubt his memoir was varnished, as I suspect most memoirs are. It’s an interesting notion to ponder – our memories as fiction. Since reading Julian Barnes’s excellent The Sense of an Ending, I’ve been mulling this over. But in the end I don’t know that it matters to me, not in this instance. Whether EH’s memories were romanticized faction or nearly-true fiction (and he claims ..Feast to be a work of fiction, to his credit(?) his prose is captivating to this reader.

      But what’s most critical here is that you get yourself to Paris.

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      1. To be perfectly honest, I don’t blame you for not seeing The Paris Wife through. I’ve conditioned myself to finish books since I started blogging, but I was fairly underwhelmed by it.

        Certainly, the gap between fiction and fact is always an interesting subject to ponder, although I think writers are particularly prone to self-mythologising. Ultimately, reality is a subjective concept anyway, so it doesn’t bother me greatly; perfect recall or skewed memory, neither has any claim to accuracy.

        Very true. No excuse, being but a train ride away.

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  2. So Feast is about an old man, who wasn’t happy, remembering the days when he was young, and so he tells us, happy. I always wonder if Ernest was romanticizing his past. He may have been. But I got a tell you, I’m a big sucker for this book, and if he made it all prettier than it was, I’m still believing it.

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