Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

a-moveable-feastParis is, by popular consensus, the world’s most romantic city. And though it already held that title when Ernest Hemingway arrived there in 1921, in his early 20s, it had never before attracted so many talented foreign writers. The short list includes Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Hemingway himself. To read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of those years, you would think every Parisian cafe contained at least one master stylist, if not a half-dozen aspiring writers, all nursing a hangover or a cup of coffee while they went about completing the day’s work.

These men and women make up the famous “lost generation” (a phrase Hemingway credits to Gertrude Stein), left rudderless after the First World War, unable to find meaning in the old ways. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” might be their anthem, though in truth you could find representative works from all of them that express the same themes of listlessness and disaffection, of sadness unexpressed and anger unutterable, of a violent rupturing with the past and an uncertain future ahead. Faced with such problems, who could not see the attraction of living a vagabond lifestyle, drinking late into the night and working at your craft throughout the day, stretching every dollar to the utmost? Hemingway has a wife and child to support, and he often tells his wife a white lie about having a lunch or dinner invitation, allowing them to eat what little food they have while he tramps about Paris, exploring the Tuileries gardens or the stacks of books at Shakespeare & Company, where he has a line of credit. Like Adam Gopnik’s Paris To The Moon, A Moveable Feast is a paean to Paris, to the timeless charms of the city: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote to a friend, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” But it is also for the portraits of his fellow writers, the telling anecdotes or personal judgments, that readers return to this book.

We learn, for example, that Gertrude Stein, magnanimous matron of Parisian arts, could not stand to have a guest bring up James Joyce in her company: “If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back. It was like mentioning one general favorably to another general.” F. Scott Fitzgerald comes across as a hypochondriac, or worse, a self-pitying, spineless effeminate (perhaps the worst thing anyone could be, in Hemingway’s judgment), but it is during this time that The Great Gatsby is published, and Hemingway is too good a reader to allow his opinion of the author to cloud his judgment about his work. Zelda Fitzgerald appears hardly at all, but perhaps the book’s funniest passages are provoked by her cruel comment to her husband about his penis size: “Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements.” Hemingway, at a loss for how to comfort him, takes him to the Louvre, to study the anatomy of the male statues, before he delivers this hopeful piece of advice: “It is not basically a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle.”

To witness two of the 20th century’s greatest writers discuss the finer points of penis sizing – the quintessential male insecurity – might not be the primary joy of A Moveable Feast, but it exemplifies how wonderfully humanizing this memoir is towards writers whose reputations are the stuff of legend.