On my road trip to Vancouver Island this summer, I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in a used bookstore. I finally read it the other week. Although I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing (based on the one book I’ve read, For Whom the Bell Tolls), I thoroughly enjoyed the sketches of his Parisian life.
This memoir was published posthumously in 1964 and describes his time in Paris from 1921-1926 when he was pursuing a career as a novelist in his early 20s, in love with the city and in love with his wife, Hadley Richardson.
But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.
From this, you can tell his memories slide between bitter and sweet.
But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.
Near the end, he recounts how “new people [read: rich people] came deep into our lives and nothing was every the same again” and he links these new people with his descent into marital infidelity.
When you have two people who love each other, are happy and gay and really good work is being done by one or both of them, people are drawn to them as surely as migrating birds are drawn at night to a powerful beacon. If the two people were as solidly constructed as the beacon there would be little damage except to the birds.
It’s incredibly moving because he’s writing these vignettes as an older man looking back on a younger man with the unfortunate privilege of hindsight. His melancholic sentences seep like wounds.
We both touched wood on the café table and the waiter came to see what it was we wanted. But what we wanted not he, nor anyone else, nor knocking on wood or on marble, as this café table-top was, could ever bring us. But we did not know it that night and we were very happy.
And at the end:
When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.
Hemingway also provides vivid portraits of other American literary expatriates living in Paris during this time: Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald whose physical descriptions were dead on with how they look in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris. Actually, the book felt like the literary equivalent of the film since I had just watched it before reading the book, but since the book came first, I suppose it should be the other way around.
Fitzgerald took Hemingway under his wing as the more experienced writer and the two became good friends, but Hemingway always felt Fitzgerald’s genius had been cut short because of his erratic and unpredictable wife, Zelda, whom Hemingway didn’t like from the beginning.
If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby, I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.
Hemingway says Zelda was jealous of Scott’s work and was out to destroy him from the beginning, constantly dragging him to parties and getting him drunk because she was bored. She ended up suffering several mental breakdowns and spent the last part of her life checking in and out of hospitals.
There’s an epigraph to the section on Scott that, in my opinion, shows Hemingway’s greatness with language (perhaps more than his novels do):
His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. 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.
The lines remind me of a painting by Sucontha Wongsalee, which in turn, was inspired by Coldplay’s song, Paradise. So much art inspired by butterflies, a hinge creature between flight and frailty, beauty and brokenness, strength and subtlety.
The picture is telling a story about a butterfly with the broken wing trying to get back to where it flew from. It’s trying so hard but still….just like when we were young, we expected life in a different way right?
Then, we got a broken heart when life disappointed us and we try to move on but we’re stuck somehow…
Hemingway has a line in the book, “Everybody has something wrong with them.”
In The Moveable Feast, he shows exactly this. Sketches of people with damaged wings, trying to recall the love of flight.