Honesty In Memoir
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
I hadn’t given this book a read in many years, and so after reading Hemingway’s Boat, I decided to take it on again. It’s funny, but it was as if I had never read it the first time. I think that as a writer and as an adult, and the commensurate growth in both, it’s possible to understand things in a well-written piece of nonfiction – particularly a memoir – at a much greater depth. But then that depends on the skill set of the author. And whatever one might think about Hemingway, during his better years, he had the skills, the understanding, to put together such a piece of writing.
A Moveable Feast has endured because of its romanticization of Paris’ writing scene during the 1920s, and because he wrote about many of the other literary luminaries of that era. He wasn’t a name-dropper; his sketches of such persons as Ford Madox Ford, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, And Ezra Pound, as well as a lesser cast of writers, are in-depth looks at these friends and acquaintances and how they interacted.
Hemingway can be taken as smug in these sketches, and I’m that’s there, given his ego. But he did have insight into people, places, situations, and these made him the preeminent writer he was. During this read, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying damned hard to see these personalities in the objective light of a journalist, but a journalist involved emotionally and professionally with most of these writers.
Of course, Paris itself is a character here, as well as a backdrop. Its importance to Hemingway and the other writers gathered there cannot be ignored. It was a haven, a crucible, a way to live and grow as writers on the cheap. And this is perhaps the singular thing that forced Hemingway to write this book.
With such talent in one place, success was eventually going to explode for them. And this is in a way what Hemingway laments. If you read the historical novel, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, you’ll understand more of how rich sycophants all but distracted these writers from their talent. In Hemingway’s case, it ruined his first marriage, perhaps his only successful one, with Hadley Richardson. This drove him to look back on Paris romantically and at the same time with sadness, and thus he created perhaps his best piece of writing in A Moveable Feast.