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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Book Review: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Florida Keys. 1937. Harry Morgan, husband to a former prostitute, disappointed father, erstwhile deep sea fishing guide. Broke. Desperate. Surrounded by wasted, depressed, angry, hopeless characters. Welcome to Hemingway.

How can a protagonist who refers to blacks as “niggers”, who writes his own moral code with little regard for law or ethics, who regrets his daughters, and who has a dismal outlook on life even on his best days get under your skin? How can a writer, whose phrases are bleak, whose characters are mean, and who has a dismal outlook on life even on his best days make you tremble? Welcome to Hemingway.

When I turned the final page, I couldn’t decide if this was one of the most awful stories I’d read or one of the most brilliant. So, I settled on both as true. The story is dark, wet, brutal, discombobulated. The writing is dark, wet, brutal and freaking amazing. The narrative shifts from Harry as first person narrator, allowing the reader to become intimately connected to the “have-nots”- Harry, his wife and family, his hired-as-needed crew –  to the third person omniscient, forcing us to observe at a distance the “haves”- the idle rich and educated who moor their yachts and slum at the bars with the locals. In between is Harry’s story told in third-person narrative. This manipulation of style breaks the reader from being within the story to observing it, as if to say we’re no longer a part of what Harry is doing, we’re just watching him from a seat off-stage…

Fortunately, the writing is classic Hemingway –  spare and powerful and so, so sad. The scene between Harry and his wife, Marie, is tender and tragic, juxtaposing a black-hearted opportunist with a flawed but loving man. Unfortunately, the writing is classic Hemingway: every character sounds exactly alike, the flow, regardless of point of view, does not change. Although the causes of misery vary between characters, their responses are identical: caustic and wretched. Only Marie Morgan shows spirit and vulnerability. And lest we think Hemingway is getting soft, he cleaves away her dignity in one short scene. At least he leaves her ignorant of the insult.

The disjointed narrative reads like two novellas joined by loosely-intersecting characters and the story suffers from the relentless grind of depravity. There is no redemption, no growth, no character transformation. In the bleak era during which this was written- the Depression- perhaps the tone fit the times.

This was Hemingway’s first long work after an eight-year hiatus. It feels like a giant fuck-you by Hemingway to the literary establishment and to his readers. Although Harry Morgan declares “A man.. one man alone ain’t got…No man alone now… No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody–chance.” To Have and Have Not reads very much like a man who has declared himself alone, and not giving a damn.

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