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Book Reflections – A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast - Book cover

A Moveable Feast – Book cover

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

After reading The Paris Wife for book group I was inspired to read Hemingway’s own memoir of the years he spent happily married to Hadley in Paris.

Hemingway is a great writer and I admired his lean prose with few superfluous words. At times I found his wording a little bit confusing but perhaps that’s because he was writing from memory 40 years after the time and was understandingly vague on some points. I admire that he didn’t pretend to remembering everything and told the reader when he had forgotten something. Many people write memoirs from an omnipotent, all-knowing position, even transcribing entire conversations that had taken place decades beforehand. I always read these with a healthy amount of scepticism, wondering how much is rose-tinted, or altered by the vagaries of memory and multiple retellings.

On that topic, I have been discussing recently with religious colleagues and friends the writing of the bible and whether the gospels are supposed to be believed as accurate accounts or if the reader is meant to be sceptical about whether the writers could have remembered accurately from a distance of decades.

Back to Hemingway, the aspect that I found least believable were the conversations with his wife Hadley. All of the dialogue between them is sugar coated and adoring. Is it probable that they never had disharmony or has Hemingway written this memoir partly as an apology to Hadley for abandoning her and their son? After a trip to see his publisher then spending time in Paris with his mistress, Hemingway returns to his wife in the Austrian Alps:

When I saw my wife again… I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face.., beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun…
‘Oh Tatie’ she said, when I was holding her in my arms, ‘you’re back and you made such a fine successful trip. I love you and we’ve missed you so.’
I loved her and I loved no one else and we had a lovely magic time while we were alone…

The same sugar coated dialogue is carried into the fictionalized The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and perhaps it’s true but then why would Hadley have been such a doormat and not fought to keep Ernest and why would he have wandered away from their grand love?

It’s easy to see where Paula McLain gained her plot inspiration for The Paris Wife. It’s interesting to note the deviations from Ernest’s memoirs that she makes, bringing Ernest’s mistress into the Austrian Alps for example when he doesn’t mention that she came there. It was also fascinating to read his reasons for breaking his bond with Gertrude Stein, who seemed to be involved in an abusive Lesbian relationship and he overheard a strange conversation between the lovers that repulsed him. Paula McLain by contrast suggests that Stein broke their friendship over the parody that he wrote of their mutual friend’s novel. I think that she did a lot of research to write the novel, including letters so perhaps in some ways her novel is truer to facts than his memoir? I don’t know but I do know that I greatly enjoyed reading both and I feel enriched by them and inspired by the true love between Ernest and Hadley.

It’s fascinating to read about Hemingway’s interactions with other writers like James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald. It was interesting to read that Hemingway was addicted to gambling on horse races and about the stupendous volumes of alcohol that he drank. I also found it intriguing that some days he didn’t use wood to heat his writing room or eat lunch to save money but he employed a servant (despite his wife not working) and they could afford to spend 4 months of the year in the Austrian Alps and to take other vacations together. Either way, their lack of money didn’t seem to effect their happiness:

We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.

Some quotes that resonated with me

I do a lot of travel, often solo but sometimes with others. The nature of the travel companion can have an enormous impact on the success of the trip. Hemingway made a road trip with F Scott Fitzgerald and they drank far too much and it was quite disastrous. When he returned to his wife he said:

… never to go on trips with anyone you do not love

I don’t think it’s necessary to love your travel companion but a necessity is to treat one another with respect and to be flexible in the face of difficulties.

As we are now en route to relocate to Norway this is rather poignant:

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.

I am quite selective about who I spend time with, valuing most highly those who express agency in their everyday lives rather than walking the easy, capitalist, middle-path and those who don’t take themselves too seriously but instead can make me laugh and can laugh at themselves:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Is this why we are always seeking and striving?

By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.

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