Arguably, Ernest Hemingway was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. Because it is probably unfair to declare one author greater than another of their contemporaries when their styles and methods varied so much—William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald spring to mind—such an accolade should probably be qualified by “among the greatest.” But I would still put Hemingway in first place, if only because his style was so unique and his reach so vast: he not only penned a handful of truly great novels—The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls—but also dozens of magnificent short stories, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” plus the semi-autobiographical “Nick Adams” tales, as well as the striking vignettes inserted between the stories in the published collections. And that was just his fiction. His roots as a skilled journalist made manifest the staccato bursts of short sentences that became his signature style, and without a doubt served as the basis for his ability to witness people and events and distill it all into captivating prose. Whether you are fascinated or repulsed (or a little of both!) by bullfighting or big game hunting, there are probably no better chronicles of these pursuits than, respectively, Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway’s genius for nonfiction is again underscored in A Moveable Feast, a memoir first published posthumously in 1964 by his fourth wife Mary, and then controversially re-edited and re-released in this “restored edition,” by his grandson Sean.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” This marvelous book is a collection of sketches of that “moveable feast” by that talented but penurious young man who lived in Paris in the early 1920s, struggling to earn a living as a foreign correspondent while perfecting his fiction, reading everything he could lay his hands on, skipping meals to finance trips to the race track, skiing in the most primitive conditions, drinking up a storm at cafés, and glorying in a whirlwind of activities with his first wife (Hadley Richardson, with whom here he is very much in love), and a gaggle of literary expatriates whose names read like a catalog of authors from the spines of books on the shelf of a fine personal library: John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and many others.
Revealed here is a kinetic energy and optimism in the young “Hem,” as well as an admiration and respect for other artists conspicuously absent in his later years. This version of Hemingway is extremely likeable: gregarious, curious, kind, considerate; craving the friendship and attention of both the famous and the little-known characters in his orbit. It was this fecund period that spawned The Sun Also Rises, his first novel and one of his finest. Later in life, his talent for his craft visibly diminished, lost to excessive alcohol, punishing physical injuries, and a kind of vulgar, outsize grandstanding that turned him into something of caricature of himself. He could often be mercurial, violent, boastful, immature; a mean drunk, a lousy husband, frequently a bad friend who was envious and resentful of another’s success, and spiteful enough to conspicuously malign them (as he did Scott Fitzgerald, more than once) in his writings. Thus it is that Hemingway’s episodic account of his early years in this volume is so energizing for the reader—revisiting a lost era of Paris between two devastating world wars, guided by a young man on the very cusp of becoming a great writer who is at once full of love for his lady and his life—yet nevertheless colored by the poignancy of the knowledge of what lies ahead for both Paris and its protagonist.
In 1956, Hemingway rediscovered two small steamer trunks that he had stored and forgotten at the Hotel Ritz Paris nearly three decades before, full of the notebooks he had kept during the 1920s. These were the primary sources for A Moveable Feast, which is why it reads with such freshness and optimism. Hemingway transcribed and edited these as a basis for a memoir he never completed. After his 1961 suicide, his fourth and final wife Mary reworked this manuscript for publication, putting changes to his draft that some have criticized. Also criticized with some greater vehemence is this “restored edition,” reworked yet again by his grandson Sean Hemingway, and containing additional material. As with all posthumous works, we can only wonder what the living author would have wanted us to read. But all of that is of less consequence to the reader than the wonder of this gift to us from that author. Again and again, throughout this volume, I came upon paragraphs written nearly a century ago by a man I consider the finest literary artist of his generation that took my breath away. Paragraphs such as:
The worst thing I remember of that avalanche winter was one man who was dug out. He had squatted down and made a box with his arms in front of his head, as we had been taught to do, so that there would be air to breathe as the snow rose up over you. It was a huge avalanche and it took a long time to dig everyone out, and this man was the last to be found. He had not been dead long and his neck was worn through so that the tendons and the bone were visible. He had been turning his head from side to side against the pressure of the snow. In this avalanche there must have been some old, packed snow mixed in with the new light snow that had slipped. We could not decide whether he had done it on purpose or if he had been out of his head. But there was no problem because he was refused burial in consecrated ground by the local priest anyway; since there was no proof he was a Catholic.
And that is why you read Hemingway! Not because you are impressed by the man he was, or the caricature of the man he came to personify, although both of these are fascinating. Not because of his utilization of the “objective correlative” as a literary device, although he did employ it masterfully. Not because he could tell us stories about wars, and bulls, and illuminated cafés, but he certainly knew such stories and told them well. But because he was truly an outstanding writer who frequently bestowed upon us truly great literature. This is why A Moveable Feast is required reading not only for the Hemingway aficionado, but for anyone who wants to experience such an artist at the height of his form. Paris may have been Hemingway’s moveable feast, but our very own moveable feast might be found in the books of glorious prose he has bequeathed to us. With that in mind, I will let Hemingway conclude this review of his work with his own words rather than that of the reviewer:
Nobody climbs on skis now and almost everybody breaks their legs but maybe it is easier in the end to break your legs than to break your heart although they say that everything breaks now and that sometimes, afterwards, many are stronger at the broken places. I do not know about that now but this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.