Home > 1950, 20th Century, American Literature, Book Club, Hemingway Ernest, Memoirs > A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

  1. May 31, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Fascinating, not the Hemingway I know of either, though there are moments of great tenderness in some of his novels.
    BTW you don’t need to translate métier, It’s one of those French words that is used in English, like rendezvous, because as you say, it’s untranslatable, and we know what it means. Though I think we would usually italicise it, I’m not sure if Americans would.

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    • May 31, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      It was italicized, that’s why I thought it didn’t exist in English. Rendezvous, fiance or cliche are not italicized.

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  2. May 31, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! It is nice to know that the book surprised you by giving you a glimpse into another facet of Hemingway. I read ‘A Moveable Feast’ a few years back when I was reading one Hemingway after another. I remember liking it, but I don’t remember much of it. As it is quite slim, I am thinking I should read it again. Your observation on Hemingway talking mostly about his interactions with Anglo-American writers made me think. When I was younger, I used to love the depictions of Paris by Anglophone writers – Hemingway, Henry James and my favourite W.Somerset Maugham – but I realize now that most of the time while they glorified the city, their literary and personal circle included mostly Anglophone writers and artists. I realize that the Paris they were describing was the Anglophone version of Paris and there would be a French version of Paris, a Russian version of Paris and a Spanish version of Paris which would all be very different. So your comment that it is hard to reconcile Hemingway’s Paris with the Paris you have in mind was quite fascinating.

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  3. Brian Joseph
    May 31, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    My wife read this and really liked it. I have read a fair amount of Hemingway and really want to read this one. I tend to to enjoy writers who have a more complicated style too. But there is something about Hemingway minimalistic simplicity that I love.

    Great commentary as always Emma.

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    • June 1, 2014 at 10:44 am

      It’s a short book, it’s well worth reading. I don’t know how to say that in English: je n’accroche pas à son style. It means that I’m not drawn to his style on “gut level”. He doesn’t reach out to me.

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  4. June 1, 2014 at 2:19 am

    Have you heard of this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Imitation_Hemingway_Competition

    I went through an entire Hemingway phase when I first moved to America and really enjoyed myself at the time.

    I think Hemingway became almost a parody of his type of troubled male character towards the end.

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    • June 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      I didn’t know about this contest. It’s funny.
      Which Hemingway is your favourite?

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  5. June 2, 2014 at 2:50 am

    To Have and Have Not

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  6. June 2, 2014 at 10:13 am

    That sounds like an interesting book. I’m not terribly familiar with Hemingway (though I loved For whom the bell tolls) so I don’t even have a mental image of him like you have. But unlike you I do enjoy reading about writers’ lives and if the writers write about their own lives, then that’s even better. The title’s now on my list.
    For Édes Anna, do we coordinate when we publish our posts? Who else is in the book club?

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    • June 2, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      You’ll probably find it interesting. It’s a very short book, so it’s a quick read.

      For Édes Annan, what about publishing a post on July 31st? The other members of the book club are my friends and they don’t have a blog. I expect an excellent book with this one. We’ve chosen the books for next year, I’ll publish the list soon.

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  7. June 3, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Ok for 31 July (for some reason I thought it was your June choice). How nice that you can discuss books live with your friends! I look forward to your next list, some of the books you read in the last few months really appealed to me (e.g. Lucky Jim).

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    • June 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm

      See you soon for Edes Ana and for the book club list.

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  8. leroyhunter
    June 3, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    I’m going through a bit of a Hemingway revival in recent years myself. If you can see beyond the often ridiculous person, much of the writing remains superb (especially the short stories). This was what got me back into Hem a few years ago – Fiesta and To Have & Have Not are well worth the effort as well. Death in the Afternoon (about his obsession with bullfighting) nearly derailed me but I’m still plugging away at the shorter stuff.

    That extract I tweeted from Black Sun gives a fascinating insight into the milieu of Paris about the time Hem describes here. An interesting point is that all of the writing titans (Americans, especially) who went to Paris never really engaged (at least creatively) with the local life or society – the work they produced was all about American characters and life “back home”. Strange. If you look at other expats in other time (Henry James for example) they at least set stories in the lands of their exile.

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    • June 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm

      I’ve never tried his short stories, maybe I should. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his style, though.
      Does the title of this book, Black Sun, refer to Charles Baudelaire?
      I was also surprised that they didn’t mix with the Parisian scene. Weird, isn’t it? What’s the point of being abroad if it’s to stay with fellow Americans. — besides the amazing food, of course. 🙂

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  9. leroyhunter
    June 4, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Yes, Crosby (the subject of the book) was obsessed with Baudelaire and founded a publishing venture called Black Sun Press. It produced editions of his own (largely terrible) poetry and prose, but also published Hart Crane, DH Lawrence and James Joyce. I did a check on Abebooks recently and second hand editions of Black Sun Press works vary in price from the low thousands to £30,000 in a couple of cases.

    Crosby went through a series of enthusiasms in his years in Paris – decadence, modernism, futurism, surrealism – but Baudelaire was his constant idol (and to a lesser extent Rimbaud). His genuine urges for artistic understanding and self-expression culminated in 1929 in madness, murder and suicide.

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    • June 5, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks for the much needed explanation: the Crosby I knew was more into white Christmases than black suns. I’ve looked him up, he’s a survivor from the battle of Verdun, wow.
      Did he meet Breton, Artaud…?

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  10. June 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    I need to read more Hemingway actually, I’ve read three or four and with the exception of The Old Man and the Sea (there’s a reason it’s taught to children in schools) thought them excellent. I saw his prose style once compared to being as if each word was a pebble polished by a fast moving stream, and I think that’s right. It’s an incredibly clean prose style, I can see why at times you might find it too much so.

    This one I don’t think I have read. I have some unread Hemingway on my shelves, I should see if it’s one of them.

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    • June 9, 2014 at 11:03 am

      The simplicity of his prose is deceptive. It seems simple to do when it’s not so simple. It becomes apparent in A Moveable Feast that he put a lot of work in his writing. It reminds me of Roy Lichtenstein. When you see his paintings, it seems easy to do and you don’t always realise the research behind it.

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  1. May 25, 2017 at 11:55 am

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