Until recently I’d never read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of expatriate artists in Paris in the 1920s. It’s a time period that fascinates me, partly because there was such a hive of English-language literary talent in that beautiful city during that decade. Hemingway’s recollections include personal anecdotes about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford, and others.
Some of the writing in A Moveable Feast is stunning. Hemingway has the ability to describe an incident that yanks you right into the experience. His long, breathless sentences give you the sense that he can’t wait to tell you about what he has seen. There are wonderful passages where he describes skiing in Austria:
“I remember the smell of the pines and the sleeping on the mattresses of beech leaves in the woodcutters’ huts and the skiing through the forest following the tracks of hares and of foxes. In the high mountains above the tree line I remember following the track of a fox until I came in sight of him and watching him stand with his right forefoot raised and then go carefully to stop and then pounce, and the whiteness and the clutter of a ptarmigan bursting out of the snow and flying away and over the ridge.”
Pure poetry. I also love the passage in the book about a boy who led a small herd of goats through the Latin Quarter each morning, making the rounds of the alleyways, playing his pipes to advertise his wares. The boy would milk a goat on demand for a customer, who brought a pail or pot to collect the milk.
There are many sections of this book, though, that make me wonder why a person would write such negative observations about his friends in a public work of literature. Hemingway praises the writing of his buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he savages Fitzgerald personally. Why write down an incident where Fitzgerald told Hemingway in a bar that his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, thought his penis was too small? Hemingway recounts how he had Fitzgerald pull down his pants in the bathroom to verify that his anatomy was adequate, and then took him to the Louvre to compare his parts to the classical sculptures. Funny, maybe, but so belittling to his friend (in more ways than one!). Not to mention the tell-all accounts of the drinking binges of F. Scott and Zelda.
The only people Hemingway has much good to say about are his wife, Hadley, whom he admits to cheating on at the end of the book; his son, whom he calls by the cute nickname of Mr. Bumby; and Ezra Pound. Hemingway repeatedly describes Pound as a “saint” in A Moveable Feast. It may be true that Pound raised funds to support the writers he admired, such as T.S. Eliot, but it seems extremely odd to beatify Pound, who made virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts and told U.S. troops they were fighting on the wrong side in the battle against fascism in World War II. Since Hemingway compiled the manuscript of A Moveable Feast after the war ended, he couldn’t plead ignorance of Pound’s actions.
All of these oddities in A Moveable Feast are a strong reminder of the changes that have taken place since Hemingway’s time. The out-of-control machismo that Hemingway championed in almost all his writing rings very false now. It makes Hemingway look like a kind of schoolyard bully wannabe. Not only that, the machismo dates much of Hemingway’s work. All that makes me wonder what Ernest Hemingway could have been if he had used his enormous talent with more generosity and compassion.
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