I decided to give Hemingway another try. I liked “The Old Man and the Sea” enough (having read it in high-school), but found “Green Hills of Africa” insufferable, involving mostly Hemingway wandering around the African Savana whiskey-in-hand talking about what he was going to shoot. Hemingway’s “punchy” style, with short direct sentences has always seemed to me rather acerbic, fitting perhaps journalism (where he learned the style) but which does not capture my imagination’s need for beautiful prose. But I have learned that the same authors can often – and quite surprisingly – come up with both a masterpiece as well as garbage. So this time I decided I would give “A Moveable Feast” a try.
This book can best be described as an auto-biographical prequel. Though it was perhaps his last written work and was published three years after his suicide, it is about his time in Paris (with his first wife of four) and before he had published any of his novels. That time when a novelist is hungrily accumulating and accumulating and accumulating experiences and impressions before plunging into the world of writing – before they have anything to say, they must live life; for Hemingway this meant Paris.
The book was interesting, to a degree. The annees folles (Paris in the ‘20s) were a heady time for (ironically – or not) English-language literature (as well as perhaps Spanish painting). They were the years when Hemingway and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce would hang out with Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali at Shakespeare and Company with Sylvia Beach or at Gertrude Stein’s apartment and drink too much and fight and talk about daily affairs and a full panoply of unimportant things.
It is also the place where his destructive love of alcohol started. Alcoholics don’t realize how much they infuse mentions of liquor into daily conversation. “I need a beer” and “then we ordered a bottle of Cinzano”, etc. This book was about a man in his 20s in Paris during the ‘20s drinking his way through life. It did take some shine off the annees folles – with less-than-flattering depictions of Fitzgerald and Stein and Pound; it might be the anti-thesis of “Midnight in Paris”, a more romanticized view of that special period in art-history.
I sort of wish Hemingway would have written a full auto-biography, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez did. Had he done so, “A Moveable Feast” would have been condensed and would only represent the first chapter or section of the much larger story of man rising to the highest levels of his profession – only to be knocked down by our indefatigable penchant for human frailty. Now that would have made an amazing story.