Friday, August 5, 2011

A Less-Macho Hemingway

Over the past few days, during the breaks from unpacking, I've been re-reading A Moveable Feast, my favorite book by Ernest Hemingway.  Written in fits and starts during the four years before his death in 1961 and published posthumously, A Moveable Feast looks back at Hemingway's life in 1920s Paris, when he lived there with his first wife Hadley and (later) their son "Bumby" (Jack).

As an undergraduate English major I struggled my way through Hemingway's more famous works, most of them dripping with machismo.  I first read this "lesser" work a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised by its gentle treatment of Hadley and of F. Scott Fitzgerald; his friendship with the latter appears to have been rockier than one would expect, but Hemingway lays most of the turbulence at the feet of Fitzgerald's mentally unstable wife Zelda.  Hemingway's incisive portraits of his fellow ex-pat writers are sometimes hilarious; I particularly liked his description of the poet Ernest Walsh as consciously "marked for death."  (Apparently Walsh had tuberculosis and milked it for all it was worth.)  Other descriptions - such as the cause of his break with Gertrude Stein - are quite disconcerting.  These were the years when Hemingway was consciously paring back his writing style to develop the sinewy prose that eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration," and his discussions of how he did that and his struggles to find a market for this new type of prose are very interesting.

Between the personal and literary anecdotes Hemingway talks about the food, wine, art, cafes, and architecture that made Paris "the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is" in a way that makes me want to revisit Paris in a time machine.  Of course, 30+ years after the events described Hemingway's memories of the discomforts of their often unheated cold-water flat have probably dimmed somewhat, and I'm still wondering how, during the lean periods when he often went without lunch to save money and wrote in cafes in avoid buying fuel, they could still apparently afford a cook; was Hadley really that hopeless in the kitchen?  I may have to buy a copy of Hadley, the biography by Gioia Diliberto, to fill in the gaps.

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." ~Ernest Hemingway

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