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.

 

 

 

 

Pictures of Women

See the similarity in these pictures?

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.

Jeff Wall. Picture for Women. 1979.

Édouard Manet painted the one on the left in the 19th century; Jeff Wall photographed the one on the right in the 20th century.

I came across Jeff Wall while reading Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. He calls himself an artist-photographer because many of his photographs are staged in studio with elaborate costumes and a troupe of actors. This theatrical, staged side to his photographs puts the “artist” in “artist-photographer,” whereas the “photographer” title standing alone implies a natural, spontaneous, lifelike medium.

The Vancouver Sun recently had an article on him as the Vancouver Art Gallery just added this Wall photograph to its permanent collection:

Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009.

Wall himself says he takes inspiration from painters like Édouard Manet. The article compares Wall’s and Manet’s pictures based on their similar architectural motifs and mirrors, but also on their depiction of the power dynamic between men and women.

While the woman in this photograph (Virginia Newton-Moss) exudes a strong presence with her solid stance and black garb, she is literally in costume and on display, showing off a British ensemble circa 1910. Ivan Sayers, a costume historian, holds the floor as he gives a lecture at the University Women’s Club. The male professor lectures; the female model is on display. The man teaches; the women listen. This reminds me of the whole idea of the active versus passive gaze dichotomy that often comes up when analyzing social relationships in paintings or photographs.

A great painter who depicted these complex gender interactions was Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. I like the intertextual relationship between Wall’s modern photograph Picture of Women from 1979 and Manet’s classic painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882. I find Manet’s picture more striking, which is why I’ll address my comments to this one.

Here are some notes I dug up about it from an Impressionist art course I took in university:

  • these café-concerts are less about the concert and more about the social interaction between strangers – notice the casualness. It hints more at separateness than at conviviality
  • waitress has immense dignity even though she’s confined
  • viewer is disconcerted with her matter-of-fact, cool glance that lacks expression
  • she’s a victim of commercialized leisure
  • waitresses typified the new Paris
  • many of them used their jobs as waitresses as a cover for prostitution, yet Manet gives waitresses dignity in his portrayal of them

I’ve always been intrigued by this painting and remember visiting the Courtauld Gallery in London where it hangs. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It was much bigger than I expected and even more striking in person.

It’s disturbing to view because the waitress looks directly at the viewer, and we do not know how to read her. Notice the image in the mirror. It’s faulty. In the reflective glass, she leans in to the male customer, but in the real image, she is standing perfectly straight. The man’s location is where the viewer would be standing, so what does this say about us? Are we the man, the villain of this leisure society that commodifies women? Is she on display for us? Do we consume her with our gaze? Some art critics think she’s not so much selling drinks as selling herself, as symbolized by the ripe oranges that are a motif for sexuality in many of Manet’s paintings.

Every time I look at this painting, I am still moved by the waitress’ aloof, ambiguous expression, while there seem a million different thoughts going through her head. I wonder if the interaction in the reflection is one of these scenarios she’s playing out in her mind of how the impending transaction will go with the new customer who’s just approached the counter. Perhaps the reflection is five seconds ahead of the reality, for when she faces us, she looks professional as she waits for him/us to come to her, yet when she turns to the man in the mirror, she looks yielding — yielding to his desire. It’s like she knows how the scene will play out even though she doesn’t want it to. Seeing that a mirror comprises the entire background of the painting, the themes of appearance versus reality, thoughts and actions, engagement and detachment seem entirely plausible.