Monday, July 27, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“A MOVEABLE FEAST” by Ernest Hemingway (first published posthumously in 1964; so-called “restored” text published in 2009)
Here’s a tangled tale of publication, which might be a warning to authors against marrying too often.
After rediscovering a trunk full of diaries and letters he had written as a young man in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) tinkered with the writing of A Moveable Feast between 1957 and his suicide in 1961. It was edited by his fourth (and last) wife Mary before it was published in 1964 and became a bestseller. Later, Mary Hemingway was accused of having edited the (uncompleted) text unfairly and with the malicious intent of cutting out some of the book’s favourable references to Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson. Later still, in 2009, Sean Hemingway, Hemingway’s grandson by yet another wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, produced what he claimed was a “restored edition”, undoing the damage Mary was supposed to have done. He did put in one or two interesting stories that were not in the first edition. Unfortunately, critics said that Sean Hemingway’s version trimmed the first edition’s last chapter, which made unflattering references to his grandmother Pauline Pfeiffer (even if she was not specifically named). Most people believe the original 1964 publication is still the one closest to Hemingway’s intentions.
So, having given you this background, I admit that it is the first edition that I stick to in this notice.
Now why did I drag this slim volume (150 pages in the Penguin edition I read) off the shelf recently and re-read it?
Some months back, I was about to take another trip to Paris and before doing so I had watched, on-line, various documentaries and tourist-guides to the city. One consisted of an enthusiastic young American woman talking about the inner Paris area I’m most familiar with, Saint Germain des Pres. She insisted on linking it with the expatriate American writers who hung out there in the 1920s. At a couple of points she brandished a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast saying it was her “Bible” when it came to finding interesting places in Paris.
“Is it really good enough to be anybody’s ‘Bible’ as a guide to the city?” I thought, as I dimly remembered reading it in my former life as a high school English teacher. That was when I guided different classes of schoolkids through A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and that favourite of teachers of junior forms The Old Man and the Sea. (A favourite like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for the simple reason that it is so short kids don’t whine too much at having to read it.)
So off the shelf A Moveable Feast came and here I am writing about it. It is a memoir of Hemingway’s life in Paris between 1921 and 1926, when he was a stringer for a Toronto newspaper and getting the hang of writing short stories and then writing the first draft of his first novel The Sun Also Rises.
Let me say at once that, in small doses, Hemingway’s prose style is still invigorating. Those short sentences. That simplified vocabulary. Over the long stretch, though, it does become a bloody irritating mannerism, and I will never forgive the man (not only in this book, but in others) for so often and so lazily using the word “fine” when he wants to express approval of something. It was a “fine” book, a “fine” racetrack, a “fine” painting etc. etc. etc. I do note in A Moveable Feast that his first wife Hadley is referred to as “my wife” for much of the text, and is first referred to by name only about halfway through. Whether this was because of the way the text was edited, I do not know.
There are indeed some passages in this short book that evoke clearly a city that no longer exists. This is a city in which a woman still leads a goat through the streets, selling its milk to regular customers. The main noise in the streets is from the horses. The opening chapter has Hemingway writing a short story in “a good café on the Place St Michel” and it gets appropriately atmospheric about Paris reaching winter and the rain falling. There are mentions (Chapter 6) of Michaud’s restaurant where James Joyce dined and frequent references to going to Les Deux Magots for coffee. Some of these places are, naturally, now largely tourist attractions patronised by nostalgic Americans. In Chapter Five there’s an account of the booksellers on the left bank of the Seine, especially on the Quai Voltaire. Yes, the booksellers, with their lockable boxes of wares, are still there and I have dawdled along searching through their stuff. But I assume that it would mainly be tourists like me who are now their customers, and not the Sorbonne students who provided their main income in Hemingway’s time.
Hemingway’s famous passage about his writing methods is still regarded by writers as a piece of sound advice:
“It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything….” (Chapter 2)
He is amusing when he speaks of being pestered by a talentless young man in a café, whom he advises to be a critic (Chapter 10). There is some giddy and youthfully silly stuff, like (Chapter 7) his and Hadley’s attraction to horse-racing. “It was not really racing”, says Hemingway, “it was gambling on horses. But we called it racing”. He realizes that he can make money on the horses, but finds it takes so much of his time that he has no time to write. So he switches his interest to watching cycle races.
Sometimes he can speak fondly of people. He does note the kindness and financial support of Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co. He is generally positive about Ezra Pound (who died in 1972, and so was still alive when Hemingway wrote this book). Hemingway is mildly amused by Pound’s scheme to “rescue” T.S.Eliot from drudgery in a bank; but he can’t refrain from noting that Pound “liked the work of friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment.” (Chapter 12)
So far, so harmlessly engaging as a memoir.
But at a certain point, you can’t help noticing how negatively, indeed how downright maliciously, Hemingway speaks of nearly every other author he meets. And one notes that all of the people he thus bad-mouths were conveniently dead by the time he was writing, and therefore in no position to answer back.
To be crudely brutal, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much when he is mocking minor figures like the forgotten poet Ernest Walsh, “marked for death” (Chapter 14), or the poet Evan Shipman (Chapter 15), though there does seem to be some mythologising when he tells a tale of preventing the poet Ralph Cheever Dunning from committing suicide, coaxing him off a roof by offering him opium supplied by Ezra Pound (Chapter 16).
Hemingway tells us that Wyndham Lewis was a second-rate writer and a bad artist who came to Paris to see what better artists were doing and then went back to London to make inferior imitations of their work. Possibly some would agree with this verdict, but Hemingway is clearly going over the top when he writes: “I do not think I have ever seen a nastier-looking man… Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.” (Chapter 12) Apart from wondering what is distinct about the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist, one can’t help noticing that Wyndham Lewis died in 1957, before Hemingway wrote this stuff.
Gertrude Stein (who died in 1946) gets a waspish going-over when Hemingway visits her at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In Hemingway’s version, Stein was always expecting to be admired and got her “companion” [the unnamed Alice B. Toklas] to occupy Hemingway’s wife when the Hemingways visited. Hemingway’s evident implication is that Gertrude Stein did not expect heterosexual women to have anything worth saying. But Stein and Toklas “ forgave us for being in love and married”. With some justice, Hemingway objects to Stein’s coining the phrase “une generation perdue” (“a lost generation”) for Hemingway’s contemporaries, remarking that he doesn’t feel lost. But we are obviously meant to snicker when Hemingway claims to have overheard Stein childishly begging her lesbian lover not to leave her (Chapter 13).
Of Blaise Cendrars (who died in 1961, the same year as Hemingway), there is the offhanded comment that “he was a good companion until he drank too much.” (Chapter 9)
Ford Madox Ford (who died in 1939) is depicted as a preening fool who bullies waiters and claims to know more about Paris than he really does. In Hemingway’s account, Ford gives Hemingway a fatuous lecture on what a cad is. Hemingway attached Ford Madox Ford to a story – frequently quoted, but probably fictitious – of Ford’s elaborately “cutting” a man passing in the street whom he took to be Hilaire Belloc but who turned out to be Aleister Crowley. As many have already remarked, this really was Hemingway biting the hand that had fed him. Ford was the man who accepted all of Hemingway’s first short stories for publication and who later wrote a glowing introduction to A Farewell to Arms. At the time of which the older Hemingway claimed to be writing, Ford was one of his chief supporters in getting him noticed by the literati.
New Zealanders might also be interested in Hemingway’s slap-down of somebody he never met:
“In Toronto, before we had ever come to Paris, I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekhov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water.” (Chapter 15)
It is, however, Chapters 17, 18 and 19, with their calculatedly demeaning view of F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, that are the acme of Hemingway’s malice. Scott, in Hemingway’s account, is a money-obsessed, self-pitying hypochondriac, with whom, says Hemingway, he ill-advisedly went on a trip to Lyon. Fitzgerald is a man who easily got drunk and passed out. “I had no more loyal friend than Scott when he was sober”, claims Hemingway (Chapter 18), in the type of back-hander designed to suggest his fairness. He goes on to present Zelda as a neurotic and jealous bitch who deliberately encouraged Scott’s drinking to prevent him from writing. Most notoriously there is the anecdote in Chapter 19, (for which Hemingway is the only source, of course), about Scott confiding that he couldn’t satisfy Zelda sexually and worrying about the size of his penis. So Ernest and Scott repair to the lavatory where Scott shows Ernest his penis and Ernest assures Scott that it is perfectly adequate, going on to tell Scott that Zelda is just trying to destroy his confidence.
Gosh! What a helpful friend!
Needless to add, Scott and Zelda had both died in the 1940s, a decade before A Moveable Feast began to be concocted.
Now I fully appreciate that many things could, validly and verifiably, be said against the Fitzgeralds and how they lived. I am aware that, on the evidence of one mediocre novel she wrote, some feminists have attempted to build Zelda up as a creative talent and attribute her mental breakdown and years of psychiatric care to the evil patriarchy thwarting her talent (her husband and his male friends etc.). This was the line taken in Therese Anne Fowler’s busy novel Z –A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which I enjoyed for its “gossipy verve” when I reviewed it in the Sunday Star-Times back in 2013; but its strained and improbable attempt to reinvent Zelda I did not accept.
Allowing for all this, however, Hemingway’s approach still bears the signs of immense envy. Even if he was beginning on the downward slide to alcoholism, Scott Fitzgerald was, in the mid-1920s, still the applauded and well-known novelist at a time when Hemingway was the mere beginner, known to only a few. The older Hemingway’s treatment of Fitzgerald reads as an exercise in punishing Fitzgerald by cutting him down to size.
Apart from all the spite posing as manly candour, there are a couple of other things that bug me in this memoir. Hemingway likes to present himself as the poor young bohemian in passages such as:
“By any standards we were still very poor and I still made such small economies as saying that I had been asked out for lunch and then spending two hours walking in the Luxembourg Gardens and coming back to describe the marvellous lunch to my wife. When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions….” (Chapter 11)
In the very last sentence of the book, he declares “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” (Chapter 20)
This is consistent with Hemingway’s life-long pose as the rugged man of action, the loner who made his own luck. The reality is that Hemingway came from a comfortable middle-class family upon whose resources he could always call, even when he was playing poor in Paris.
I also note Hemingway’s complete dishonesty in the last chapter, where he gives an elaborate rhetorical justification for cheating on his wife (Hadley) with the woman (Pauline Pfeiffer) who became his second wife. Apparently it was everybody else who was to blame for introducing him to Pauline and it was Pauline’s fault for seducing him. Although Pauline is not named, this was the chapter that Sean Hemingway tampered with to tone down the comments on his grandmother.
Oh dear. I fear at this point I am slipping into my standard diatribe against Hemingway, the mummy’s boy who spent his life in over-compensation, selling himself as the great macho loner. I know it is immensely cruel. I know that, when he pointed the gun at himself and pulled the trigger, Hemingway had been suffering from depression, the effects of a lifetime’s abuse of alcohol, the after-effects of injuries and the memory of his father’s suicide. But I still see a lot of truth in David Levine’s New Yorker cartoon, which showed the self-killed Hemingway as the posing big-game hunter who has bagged himself as a trophy. Hemingway’s artificial persona is what killed him. You can see this throughout A Moveable Feast where he sets out to destroy the memory of others in order to enhance his own self-created legend.
I’ve strayed an awfully long way from my stated intention of seeing how good a guide A Moveable Feast is to Paris, haven’t I?
Long story short – it’s not much of a guide, unless you want to follow a very limited Parisian itinerary.