Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast will usher you into the romance (and it was romantic) of 1920s Paris just like Woody Allen transported Owen Wilson there in his 2011 Academy Award-winning screenplay, Midnight in Paris. As in the movie and this celebrated book, you will meet such luminaries as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and of course, Hemingway himself amongst many other notables from all schools of the arts. I personally was moved to pound the pavements of Paris tracing the journey of these pages and would do so again before ever traipsing through the Dublin of Ulysses like so many Joyce aficionados do on Bloomsday each year. And I’m Irish!
But before any inspirational people populate the pages, the book is principally un hommage to the city itself. Paris was more than a place to Hemingway; he believed it to be some sort of mythical fountain of inspiration overflowing with Muses. So he drew from its very air and its ambience. He is intoxicated with the city and before long you too believe that there is no other place on earth so perfect for a scribe. He considered his financial constraints as an apprenticeship in suffering that writers should experience for their craft and thrived on the richness of his relationship with his new bride, Hadley. It was here that he found his writing ‘voice’ and turned it into his unique inflection. It is visible here in his way of showing rather than telling. Where I or another author would choose any number of adjectives or adverbs to tell you about a flower, Hemingway will paint it so that the reader can not only see the beauty but scent the perfume. Similarly the aroma of the café lingers on his pages and your nose crinkles at the mustiness of the bookshops – during some passages my subconscious heard the clarinet of Sidney Bechet’s oh-so-Parisian, Si tu vois ma mere.
His companions are other writers, mostly Americans who chose to live in Paris for the same reason as he. You can see him excusing himself from the table with Hadley and the Fitzgeralds and crossing the café to exchange pleasantries with the solitary Joyce. Alice Tobias takes Hadley aside at Gertrude Stein’s home so that her lover and Hemingway can argue literature. In exchange for boxing lessons (he was a school champ) Ezra Pound coaches him in writing technique. These affiliations are revealing – not only of the subjects but of Hemingway himself. He did not think highly of Mrs Fitzgerald, believing that their relationship was holding back her husband’s writing. He ascribes to Wyndham Lewis ‘the face of an unsuccessful rapist’. He goes from daily visits with Stein to a complete falling out. He doesn’t take criticism very well (though he can dish it out liberally) and is quite vain.
So it is really a book about himself. In the preface he states that the reader should decide whether the contents are fact or fiction. To help me determine whether this was a memoir or a novel I did a little research. In doing so I came across another book, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Published in 2011 after much research and perusal of Hadley’s autobiography, McLain decided to write a book in the voice of Hadley, who shared Paris with Hemingway more intimately than any other person. This device works very well for a love story set in the dizzy dance of Jazz Age Paris and as an observation of a writer’s struggle. They are genuinely in love; in Hemingway’s case he is passionately smitten to the point of dependency. Yet, just as his name was becoming prominent as an author he left her for another woman. He was to marry another three times but in the final pages of A Moveable Feast he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
I finally decided that the book is neither pure fact nor pure fiction as offered in the preface. It is a very selective memoir of what Hemingway’s vanity allowed him to share. He will not denigrate himself and wants to be seen as macho – and image that sets the direction of the rest of his life. Though he alludes to conflicting feelings in the book he withholds that he was actually conducting an extramarital affair. It is worth remembering that this was a posthumous publication and Hadley was the last person Hemingway spoke to before he killed himself in 1961 – a brief phone-call across the years, friend to friend, just to say ‘hi’.
But thankfully we can decide not to let the facts get in the way of a good story and live with the happy young couple in The City of Light and follow them through the rainshined streets and baroque drawing rooms of their famous friends as they struggle to make ends meet, have a baby and begin to climb the ladder of literary success. I felt the nostalgia while sitting over an espresso at their favourite café, the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse having walked up through the Luxemburg Gardens from Stein’s pad in the Rue de Fleurus, musing how no other book has moved me to such pilgrimage.