October 16, 2009
When A Moveable Feast was published in 1964, I had been living in Paris for six years. I was 27 and in love with Papa Hemingway’s favorite city, one that he described as “a mistress who always has new lovers.” One didn’t speak this way back then, but the book really blew my mind. Totally. Papa had died three years before that, and reading his obituaries, I had decided to follow the writing life, despite the fact that I had failed English in school and—according to my father—was incapable of writing a coherent letter asking for money. Obituaries have a tendency to concentrate the mind. Here was a man who travelled the globe, covered wars, wrote about whatever captured his fancy, pursued women in the flesh spots of the Western world, and hunted big game in Africa—and had a ten page long obituary in Time Magazine after he had blown his brains out. It was time to forget about tennis and hit the typewriter.
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Well, as some of you may surmise, I never made it, but one thing is for certain. Hemingway’s prose and personal heroics have inspired more young people to try their hand at writing than the ghastly Bono has been copied by wannabe rock stars. Hemingway was the first literary superstar, and I include Lord Byron, more infamous for his sexual shenanigans than his romantic poetry, the latter only read by a few elite. A Moveable Feast was an instant bestseller, and it was as good as anything Hemingway had written throughout his life. I am now almost 12 years older than Papa was when he died, and re-reading Feast confirms the fact that Hemingway submitted only stuff he was certain was good. The beauty of the prose and the sharpness of his observations are extraordinary, especially today, what with phonies such as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie posing as his successors. The “new” Feast has subtle changes, most of which I didn’t even notice. The original one had been assembled by his widow, Mary, whereas this one, a milder version where settling scores are concerned, comes from his immediate family and descendants. But the control the writer has over his subjects is undeniable, in both versions. They say that one should never paraphrase the classics, but this one is not paraphrased, just made nicer at times. Gertrude Stein is still described as looking like a Roman emperor, which is fine if you like your women that way, and Wyndham Lewis still has “the face of an unsuccessful rapist.”
The tragic but great Fitzgerald is, of course, there, as is Ezra Pound and other characters of Paris in the Twenties. I remember when first reading it and taking the girl that I would one day marry to the Closerie des Lillas and repeating the conversation Papa had with Ford Madox Ford in the table next to ours, according to the waiter. “What is a cad?” asks Hemingway. “A cad is someone who is not a gentleman,” says Ford. “Is Ezra a gentleman?” “Of course not, he’s an American,” answers the Brit. Papa included this vignette in order to show how envious and petty people can be about their better-off colonials. It’s real Hemingway stuff, full of heart but also subtle.
When I read that Ezra and Papa used to play tennis every morning near Boulevard St. Germain, I went looking. An apartment building had replaced the courts. Still, Paris during the Fifties and Sixties smelled of Hemingway heroes and heroines, and I can’t count the nights I spent in Jimmy’s and La Coupole posing as a Papa man. Ernest Hemingway is the American writer most frequently associated with Paris and Spain and is thus recognized in both countries. In fact the bar in the Paris Ritz, reputed to have been liberated by Papa from the Germans, is called the Hemingway Bar. (Pronounced Emingwey by the Frogs).
Papa’s public image as a deep-sea fisherman, big-game hunter and war correspondent tended to obscure his lifelong dedication to the art of writing. But his commitment to writing was total, and it cost him his life. Hemingway killed himself because he could no longer excel at his art, the booze, head accidents, and manic depression having taken their toll. When one is as committed to one’s art as he was, second best will not do. And he had begun to talk about writing, something, he had always insisted, that brought bad luck.
Here’s a sampling from the Feast:
…I’m trying to do it so it will make it without you knowing it, and so the more you read it, the more there will be.
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.
After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love.
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