Ellen's Reviews > A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
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Dec 07, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: re-read, autobiography-memoir

Though often containing gorgeous prose, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has a clear agenda. The book treats Hemingway’s life in Paris from 1921 to 1926. Although the book clearly is autobiographical, in the Preface, Hemingway, after explaining that several items were left out of his memoir, then suggests, rather coyly, that “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction” and adds, “But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” In essence, Hemingway wants it both ways: the book may be regarded as either fact or fiction. Although there is no reason for readers to read the work as fiction, Hemingway’s suggestion serves two ends. First, Hemingway introduces the idea that the book could be viewed as a novel, an idea that echoes the famous challenge he issued when he wrote The Green Hills of Africa where he ponders whether a work of nonfiction, if written truly enough, could compete with a work of the imagination. Aligning the work with fiction promotes its artistry; in addition, Hemingway’s Preface serves to justify his carefully reconstructed version of his early life.

However, Hemingway’s book does not seem like fiction because of what he leaves out, but rather for what he puts in. And, what Hemingway adds is gossip. Rather than the often vain, self-centered, and troubled person that Hemingway was, he presents a smoothed over, patient, loyal, and often loving version of himself. His first wife, Hadley, whom Hemingway unceremoniously dumped for Pauline Pfeiffer, is promoted to near sainthood. Ford Madox Ford is presented as hygienically challenged and a fool, Ezra Pound is a saint, and Ernest Walsh is a posturing liar. Yet, Hemingway presents his gossip artfully, even reluctantly. At one point, in reference to rumors about a writing award in which Ernest Walsh was involved, Hemingway disassociates himself from gossip and even attempts to admonish the reader: “If the news [about the writing award:] was passed around by gossip or rumor, or if it was a matter of personal confidence, cannot be said. Let us hope and believe always that it was completely honorable in every way” (125).

Despite Hemingway’s stated qualms about avoiding gossip and upholding honor, he shows no restraint in his portraits of Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stein is introduced early in the memoir, and then destroyed completely in a later chapter entitled, “A Strange Enough Ending.” Tellingly, Hemingway begins the chapter by observing, “There is not much future in men being friends with great women…and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers” (117). Significantly, Hemingway diminishes Stein’s writing ability by relegating her to a general group of “ambitious women writers.” Hemingway recounts visiting Stein’s house; as he waits for her, he overhears an intimate conversation. Hemingway writes, “…I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever.

Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy” (118). Hemingway takes pains to describe how he quietly exits and asks the maidservant to say she had met him in the courtyard, and that he had never entered the house. Nevertheless, Hemingway’s willingness to write the incident and include a private conversation belies the gentlemanly behavior he tries to portray. The intimate conversation Hemingway provides—word-for-word—is designed to make Stein look foolish and weak. Hemingway uses gossip to assert his superiority.

Despite the many pages devoted to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway’s portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald serves as the book’s dramatic core. By the time Hemingway meets Fitzgerald, he has already published This Side of Paradise and had just completed The Great Gatsby. In contrast, Hemingway has not yet been able to write a novel and worries whether he can. When he reads The Great Gatsby, its genius stuns him. Hemingway’s artful vignette of Fitzgerald serves to cut him down to size. Throughout the book, Hemingway carefully constructs his writing persona and implies that the attributes he displays—discipline, diligence, and attention to craft—are the qualities of a true writer. In contrast, Hemingway introduces his portrait of Fitzgerald by implicitly comparing talent with craft.

Like Fitzgerald’s physique and character, which Hemingway dissects piece-by-piece, Fitzgerald’s writing ability is portrayed as weak and suspect. Fitzgerald, Hemingway implies, has not earned his ability to write; even worse, Fitzgerald only recognizes his talent after it is gone: “Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.” Hemingway implies that Fitzgerald’s writing was not an intellectual, crafted ability, but more a matter of luck. Fitzgerald was given a portion of talent, but he had not worked for it, and it contrasts with the sturdy and true writing that emerges from craft.

Not content with rendering Fitzgerald’s writing ability suspect, Hemingway continues to dissect Fitzgerald, taking direct aim at his manhood. Like a good gossip, Hemingway provides salacious details. However, Hemingway packages his gossip carefully. Hemingway writes, artfully: “Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have the mouth of a beauty…The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.”

In the following chapter, “A Matter of Measurements,” Hemingway assuages the insecurity Fitzgerald feels because of a comment Zelda has made by taking Fitzgerald into the men’s room, inspecting him, and pronouncing the size of his penis normal. The content could hardly be more intimate and sensational. Hemingway performs verbal surgery throughout A Moveable Feast, and despite the book’s artistry, Hemingway spares almost no one his scathing memoir.
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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message 1: by Ken (last edited Jan 04, 2010 05:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Much more thorough than my review and true to the core. Hemingstein WAS a vicious little gossip in this book, and boy would I be pissed if I were a friend of his only to find myself railroaded like this.

Of course, for me, now, totally disassociated from time and place, it's all harmless fun. Thus, my focus as a reader was more on the "gorgeous prose" you alluded to. I also loved how he beat himself silly (like a flagellant) over dumping Hadley. Thus, the sainthood (and thus is she forever canonized in my mind -- easily my favorite Hemingway wife).

Bottom line: Hem was no man for non-fiction, that's for sure. An old newspaperman, he just couldn't help but editorialize and, as usual, paint himself the wise and wondrous hero (don't worry, even his fans "get it").


Ellen Well, I was harsh here :); there's much to like in this book, and it remains vivid. I like The Green Hills of Africa too, though I treat that book badly, as well.

With the exception of TSAR, I probably like Hemingway's non-fiction and short stories the best. In my brooding adolescence, I wallowed in Hemingway and Fitzgerald and was fascinated by their lives.





message 3: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Fitzgerald never did much for me, though I admire his short, "Babylon Revisited," for its interesting ethical conundrums (as opposed to snare drums).

I love EH's Nick Adams stories best, but also love TSAR and AFTA. FWTBT is pretty good, and I really like the first part of Islands in the Stream.


Ellen I think they both were better short story writers, but Hemingway might have had a point about the talent/craft dichotomy he sets up in A Moveable Feast because I'm not sure Hemingway ever wrote a novel as good as The Great Gatsby. [I can hear you screaming, NE - stop it!:]

On the other hand, while Hemingway is soundly mocked for his less successful works, some of Fitzgerald's "golden moments" are downright sappy.


message 5: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Yeah, what's odd is that I appreciated Gatsby when I read it, but I've never been tempted to return to it. EH I have returned to multiple times. I don't know. Fitzy seems a bit flapper-dated by now. Whereas EH remains raw.


Ellen Oh, I've re-read Gatby a few times, because I've had to. I think it stands up pretty well. Some of Fitzgerald's work is indeed "flapper-dated" as you put it.

I thought you read Old School? Where did I get that idea. If not, READ IT RIGHT NOW. I am absolutely loving this book, and you would, too.


message 7: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Great review -- if you haven't read Bruccoli's 'Scott and Earnest: A Dangerous Friendship' you might enjoy it as it totally deconstructs this book. It's pretty amazing how Hemingway got taken at his own word about his life when he lied and exaggerated so often. But a lot of the writing in that book is magical.


message 8: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Ellen wrote: "I think they both were better short story writers, but Hemingway might have had a point about the talent/craft dichotomy he sets up in A Moveable Feast"

I liked something he said in his letters I think -- that when talking about Scott he felt like a little boy sneering at a delicate but more talented other little boy. I think maybe in some of his short stories and Farewell EH comes close to the perfection of GG, but I don't think he wrote anything that totally perfect, either. OTOH a lot of Fitzgerald can be, as you say, sentimental and downright sappy.

An interesting thing -- while Hemingway is so easy to imitate there are legions of contests devoted to doing just that, Fitzgerald's very hard to copy.




Ellen That's an interesting point - Fitzgerald is hard to copy. Particularly in his better works.

I've read Hemingway's letters as well. As crabby as I sound about him; he's endearing.


message 10: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Ellen wrote: "That's an interesting point - Fitzgerald is hard to copy. Particularly in his better works.

Yeah, I tried it some when I was a young aspiring hungry writer and kept failing and thought 'wtf?' Raymond Chandler in his letters says Fitzgerald at his best is like listening to a good string quartet -- pure charm. I liked that.

I've read Hemingway's letters as well. As crabby as I sound about him; he's endearing."

Aww, I love him too....actually more than most of my friends, who tend to dismiss/hate him, which makes me sad. He actually shows some vulnerability in his short stories which I find v touching. I liked the Baker edition of his letters, and that biography, a lot, too. (OMG did you read the recent memoir by his grandson, Strange Tribe? His sons were truly messed up.)



message 11: by Ellen (last edited Jan 05, 2010 09:50PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ellen Yes, pure charm and an authentic talent about sum it up. Hard to emulate.

Yes, I've read Baker's biography, and have a couple volumes of his letters (would have to check on the editors). I've not read the messed up memoir of his grandson; that would be interesting. I did read the long prologue to an updated version of TMF by one of his grandsons. Boring, but reasonably reasonable :).


message 12: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Moira et Ellen --

Another one here who's read all the EH bios PLUS his complete (at the time) letters. The letters, especially when he was young and in Paris, ARE endearing and prove what many Hem haters fail to grasp: the man was truly a "turtle," hard-shelled on the outside, all soup on the inside.

And Ellen, yes, you picked up the Old School rec from my list on CR of best books read in the past decade. Glad you're loving it!


Ellen Well, good. I thought you'd recommended Old School. Wolf does a very nice job of fleshing out Hemingway. His commentary about EH'a short stories was especially good, and made me remember each one vividly, though it's been years.


message 14: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Ellen, you write the longest reviews on this site without once using any vulgarity. Just thought you might like to know that.


message 15: by Gary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary What the hell do you mean, Stephen. I use no fuckin profanity in my goddamn reviews! What is this?? LOL!


message 16: by Gary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary Newengland wrote: "Yeah, what's odd is that I appreciated Gatsby when I read it, but I've never been tempted to return to it. EH I have returned to multiple times. I don't know. Fitzy seems a bit flapper-dated by ..."

I totally agree with this... I feel like that "rawness" makes his works timeless, where fitzgerald's fits the time of the 20's, but seems dated otherwise.


Ellen Stephen wrote: "Ellen, you write the longest reviews on this site without once using any vulgarity. Just thought you might like to know that."

Thank you very much Stephen, but I've dropped a few f-bombs on this site. I'd like to think the targets were deserving...


message 18: by Ken (last edited Feb 07, 2010 02:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken F-bombs have lost their shock value. We're going the way of Ireland (where fookin' every fookin' word is fookin' fook) fast!

And thanks for the endorsement, Gary. That's the first "agree with NE" I've had here in ... 23 months, I think.


message 19: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I agreed with you once.


Ellen Awww. I'm pretty sure I've agreed with you on a number of occasions, NE.


Lobstergirl Since Hemingway warns us that the book is fiction, I took everything in it with a grain of salt. Having said that, the Fitzgerald and Stein portrayals fascinated me and were by far the most interesting parts of the book (which contained some dead zones, like the chapter on Hem and Hadley getting similar hairdos). If an argument about talent vs. craft is going to be made, I think one also has to bring up Zelda's sabotage of Fitzgerald - Hem claims she was extremely jealous of his writing and was always trying to get him to come out and party with her instead. The revised edition I read also contains a revised quote about the butterfly wings which is not as harsh on Fitzgerald.

But I don't have any skin in the Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald game, so it's all the same to me.


Ellen Lobstergirl wrote: "Since Hemingway warns us that the book is fiction, I took everything in it with a grain of salt. Having said that, the Fitzgerald and Stein portrayals fascinated me and were by far the most intere..."

Hemingway might say it's fiction, but it sure didn't feel fictional, and you're right, the sections on Fitzgerald and Stein were the best, probably because they meant the most to him.

And yes, there's Zelda, but Hemingway hated her so much, I'm not sure I'd trust his assessment.


Ellen Lobstergirl wrote: "Since Hemingway warns us that the book is fiction, I took everything in it with a grain of salt. Having said that, the Fitzgerald and Stein portrayals fascinated me and were by far the most intere..."


I think Hemingway tells us, rather coyly, that we may read the book as fiction, if we choose. I'd like to read your review of this book (I know all my opinions on it).



message 24: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Hemingway had this weird fetish about women's hair. See the book Garden of Eden for much more of this nonsense (women with hair cut short "like a boy's" did something for him, which should bring the anti-Hem wolves out in packs, eh?).


Lobstergirl Ellen wrote: "Lobstergirl wrote: "Since Hemingway warns us that the book is fiction, I took everything in it with a grain of salt. Having said that, the Fitzgerald and Stein portrayals fascinated me and were by..."

I'd like to read my own review too, but I'd like my fingers to write it without my brain being taxed. I'm going through a lazy spell. I want to copy down sections of the book for my booknotes file, but some of the sections I want go on for 2-3 pages so I'm kind of too lazy to do that too.

The parts of the book I found interesting were the gossip about other writers; his discussion of how he writes, how he crafts, how he sits in cafes and sharpens his pencils. Every conversation with his wife I found utterly boring; the gambling on horses = boring; the chapter (which may only be in the revised edition?) of his affair with Pauline that led to the end of his marriage to Hadley was so cloaked in purposeful obscurity that it was just annoying and bordering on pointless. There was only one fact about Hadley that was interesting - that she liked and admired Henry James, who Hem despises.

I want to know why he doesn't mention Toklas by name.


Lobstergirl Newengland wrote: "Hemingway had this weird fetish about women's hair. See the book Garden of Eden for much more of this nonsense (women with hair cut short "like a boy's" did something for him, which should bring t..."

Yes, I have since heard this. In the hair chapter Hem and Hadley are whispering secrets into each other's ears, but Hem never says what the secrets are. Perhaps Hem is whispering "I have a fetish" or "I like to swing both ways" or something.



Patrice I looked for some reviews because I'm getting very annoyed with Hemmingway. This is a perfect review. I recently learned that Hemmingway was living on his wife's income of $8000/year. He was NOT going hungry. I think this is a piece of fiction and not a great one.
He comes off as a pretentious hick from the midwest who is so impressed with himself for being in Paris and an "artiste". Yuck!
Why didn't he write about what was true, about what he knew, back in Illinois. He's posing.


Patrice In addition, I just don't believe that Hadley "lost" all of his manuscripts, carbons included. Given the kind of man he was, I'm willing to bet she burned them!


message 29: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim What a great review. You've expressed my reaction to the work so much better than I have in my own review!


Ellen Thank you, Kim; I'll have to read your review. Being Hemingway's friend/lover/wife was clearly a treacherous business...


message 31: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Ellen wrote: "Being Hemingway's friend/lover/wife was clearly a treacherous business..."

Yes, the only saving grace is that his main targets were dead by the time this was published. But still ...


message 32: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Patrice wrote: "In addition, I just don't believe that Hadley "lost" all of his manuscripts, carbons included. Given the kind of man he was, I'm willing to bet she burned them!"

That would have been very tempting! :)


Stacey Just starting it now. What's funny about the passages about Fitzgerald quoted here is how grandly insecure Hemingway makes himself sound. His obsessive deconstruction of his alleged friends says nothing about them but plenty about him. It's interesting he didn't understand he was only exposing himself.


Stacey Just starting it now. What's funny about the passages about Fitzgerald quoted here is how grandly insecure Hemingway makes himself sound. His obsessive deconstruction of his alleged friends says nothing about them but plenty about him. It's interesting he didn't understand he was only exposing himself.


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