A Moveable Feast

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.

He would later go on to have three more wives, but as his last words of the book say:

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.

Hadley and Ernest with their son Bumby in 1926, months before they separated

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.

Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris

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.

Paradise-Coldplay by Sucontha Wongsalee

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.

 

 

 

 

The Great Gatsby

I wrote briefly about The Great Gatsby before. After watching Baz Luhrmann’s version in theatres this weekend, I may as well add my thoughts to the plethora of critiques and articles out there.

If you haven’t watched it or read the book, which I highly suggest you do, you might not want to read further. In other words, spoiler alert. Then again, if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, come on, it’s been around since 1925!

The Great Gatsby movie posterFirst off, I liked the movie. It was more faithful to the book than I anticipated. I don’t know why I anticipated otherwise. In fact, when I got home, I re-read sections of the book and kept muttering to myself, “Oh, that line was actually in the book!” “Oh, so was this one!” If you’re going to make a cinematic adaptation of a literary classic, it SHOULD be close to the book, but I guess I didn’t go into it with super high hopes in this regard.

This article is the best one I’ve read on the movie, commenting more specifically on Daisy’s character and why we dislike her and yet also pity her. I love Carey Mulligan’s acting and thought she did a good a job as possible to capture the ephemeral, delicate, and superficial nature of a girl like Daisy who floats from room to room in Gatsby’s mansion as fascinated by his objects as he is by her. The article makes an astute comment linking one of the covers of the book where Daisy is clad in green to the green light that symbolizes her presence but also her unattainableness.

I don’t think this was the cover the article talks about, but it’s green so it still works

She’s the enchanted object, the great American dream, all bright eyes and a voice full of money—and of course she’s the light, that green light, drawing men, mothlike, to her flame. (by Katie Baker)

Overall, I think the characters were well cast. The first time we see Leonardo DiCaprio out on his dock with the stars and fireworks twinkling behind him, well, that’s the essence of Gatsby right there: a dazzling spectacle who believes himself a “son of God.”

Gatsby’s signature smile Fitzgerald devotes an entire paragraph to

Jordan Baker is the one character who’s much better developed in the book than the movie. Would those who haven’t read the book pick up on the irony of her golf career and the narrator’s descriptions of her always reclining on a couch as if she’s the most sloth-like person to exist? Or the complicated attraction between her and Nick? It’s not surprising nothing works out between those two. I think they find themselves only drawn to one another because they’re both secondary acts to the central drama between Gatsby and Daisy. Nevertheless, Jordan perfectly wore the aloof/bored/cool expression Fitzgerald gives her in the book:

The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something – most affections conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning. . . I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.

The mysterious Jordan Baker

I had to laugh at Jordan’s expression in the Plaza Hotel when Gatsby loses his temper at Tom and looks “as if he had killed a man.” Jordan is sitting on a chair, fanning herself and wearing a staged expression of shock. I think we’re meant to be amused by her aloofness. Nick’s comment that ends the scene, “I just remembered it’s my birthday” adds to this point that Nick and Jordan are only significant insofar as they create the opportunity for Gatsby and Daisy to meet, and then become wallflowers to their stories. They are the onlookers in the same room at the Plaza Hotel who may as well be watching the scene from the street below.

Tension in the Plaza Hotel. Notice how Nick and Jordan are on the peripherals of this shot.

Yet Nick is the necessary wallflower without whom we wouldn’t have a story, as we learn about and see Daisy and Gatsby through his eyes. This, however, leads to a problem I had with Nick’s interpretation – is it just me or did anyone else find themselves needing more convincing of why Nick had such admiration for Gatsby? Sure, he had never seen a man so full of hope before and with such a grand vision for his life, but is that really it? His last phrases to Gatsby is, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I don’t really believe these words and, in the movie, Gatsby doesn’t look like he believes them either. Gatsby’s quintessential gesture is the outstretched arm grasping at the green light on Daisy’s dock, a gesture that signifies he kept climbing and reaching for more. This didn’t really strike me as admirable though – more pitiable in that it’s a symbol of the human condition. We all have our green light we extend our hands towards, and even if we attain it, something else calls to us from across the bay, an evanescent light reminding us we are never satisfied. And how fitting that it’s green – a constant reminder to keep striving. Enough is never enough. Such a “great” man and yet nobody came to his funeral.

The green light

The green light

That aside, I liked how the directors played with Nick Carraway’s role insofar as he is the first person narrator of the story (as he is in the book), but because he’s writing a memoir in the movie, he also becomes F. Scott Fitzgerald. There aren’t many roles I think Tobey Maguire is perfectly suited for, but he plays the unassuming character well (he always looks slightly surprised) and thus he makes the perfect embodiment of Nick Carraway who is “within and without.” The scene where he stands out on the balcony after the party in Myrtle’s apartment and peers into all the other New York apartment windows was probably my favourite part. It was brilliantly done, and very postmodern. The movie presents the city as the collector of our narratives – these windows of our lives that strangers can glimpse in and out of from street level or parallel balconies without ever knowing us. Closeness without togetherness (reminds me of Sidewalls in that way).

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

It’s interesting that New York repels Nick after Gatsby’s death. I don’t think Nick ever really loved the city, but his relationship with it shows the big city is vibrant and teeming with life when you feel full of life yourself, and a complete bore when you are disenchanted, walking around dead. In that sense, maybe the city is just a macrocosm for the emotions and experiences of the individual. Like a magnifying glass, the city amplifies ourselves. I think New York does this on a bigger scale than any other city, and for that reason, the novel couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

What are your thoughts on the film?