If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
These words, written by Ernest Hemingway to a friend in 1950, appear at the start of A Moveable Feast, which was completed in 1960, but tells of the time he lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, between 1921 and 1926.
His memories of that period are captured in 20 short essays: each stands alone, and there is no overall storyline or theme, beyond that of the city itself, but this slender book conjures an image of Paris that is almost tangible. The smells, tastes, sights and sounds of Paris spring off the pages, and the people breathe again as they laugh and love and quarrel and drink and smoke and work and dream. All human life is here: raffish Bohemian artists, avante garde writers and poets, drunks, bartenders, fishermen, street cleaners, booksellers, waiters…
There are glimpses of those who later became well known, alongside others who were already famous. There is Gertude Stein looking, says Hemingway, like a peasant woman rather than the Roman emperor she later resembled; James Joyce, who drank sherry, not wine, and kindly Sylvia Beach from Shakespeare and Company, who ran a lending library for ex-pats, and provided a refuge when they needed it. Hemingway recounts his friendship with Scott and Zelda Fitgerald, locked into their mutually destructive relationship – and paints a distinctly unsympathetic portrait of Zelda, who I had always thought of as something of a victim. He is far kinder in his portrayal of Ezra Pound, who comes across as being nicer and gentler than I imagined, but my perception of the poet is coloured by his later espousal of Nazism in Italy, and his somewhat irregular domestic arrangements.
And you see the young author learning his craft as a writer, trying to form one true sentence that will carry his story forward. Sometimes words pour out of him, at others he struggles to find the language that expresses his thoughts. Writing about writing he says:
The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit’s foot long ago an the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.
He spends a lot of time hungry, because he and Hadley have very little cash, but he believes lack of food sharpens his perceptions (I have to say I found this rather disturbing). And when he does have money he seems to spend it on food and drink for himself, with never a though for Hadley and their baby son.
|Ernest Hemingway in 1918, three
years before he went to Paris.
The book provided source material for Paula McLain, who gave a voice to Hadley in her excellent novel, ‘The Paris Wife’, where Hemingway is charming and charismatic, but a bit of a sod. ‘A Moveavle Feast’ does nothing to dispel that view.
To some extent I think Hemingway has been overshadowed by his own myth – all that machismo stuff about bull fighting, and hunting, and fishing. I always forget how good a writer he was, and it was at this point in his life that he himself realised he really could write, and he gave up regular work as a journalist (although he still did odd articles from time to time) and moved to Paris, determined to write fiction.
In many ways it’s a magical time, but it ends with the appearance of another woman. Hemingway makes no excuses for what happens – although he seems to put the blame on that other woman, who became his second wife. But he is nostalgic for the past, and for Hadley. “I wish had died before I ever loved anyone but her,” he says. He finishes as he starts, with a tribute to the city.
There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs to that of any other. We always returned to it no matter ho we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this was how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.