On the memoir bookshelf in my home office sit at least 100 memoirs. Many of these are classics I read long ago without thinking of them as memoirs. Some, like the one I focus on now, are famous books that fit the category but that I have never read. Thinking about genre has allowed me to find and rediscover books and read them with a new eye for form and substance.
Several people have told me that Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is on the list of their top ten memoirs. Now I understand why.
But first I must admit that I could not escape the thought, reading this book, that an ailing man in his 60’s who will soon commit suicide is writing it. (He finished the book in the fall of 1960. On July 2, 1961, he pulled both triggers of a double-barreled shotgun aimed at his head.) Oh yes, and did I mention that, as I write these words, I am almost as old as the old man.
Hemingway the old man breathes in this book. We see the old man as he looks at his young first wife Hadley almost as if to say that she was the mold for all the other women who followed. We see the old man as we read the deep appreciation for Sylvia Beach and her generous lending policies and nurturing spirit toward struggling young writers at her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.
The word portraits the old man paints of Gertrude Stein and her “companion” (never mentioning the name of Alice B. Toklas) and of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald bring them to life as complex human beings with great talent and greater failings. Hemingway the competitor assessing other competitors comes through even though in 1960 both Stein and Fitzgerald are dead. This memoir destroys Gertrude Stein’s claim to have invented the phrase, “The Lost Generation” and shows Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and his wife to be the enemy of his art.
Ironically, the alcoholism and difficulties with women Hemingway sees in Fitzgerald, as well as the fierce protection of reputation and competition with other writers he describes in Stein, apply equally to himself. How self-aware and reader-aware could he have been? We cannot know, and, because the book succeeds brilliantly in other ways, we do not care.
Throughout, Hemingway employs the metaphor of eating and drinking to describe how important writing was to him when he was living in Paris from the ages of 22 to 27. He quotes Hadley as saying, “Memory is hunger.” The scenes in this memoir alternate between the gnawing of near starvation and the relish of simple food and drink–tangerines, chestnuts, oysters, little goujon fish pulled out of the Seine and consumed bones and all. We feel the immense appetites of the young man as he writes, walks, talks, gossips, gambles, and makes love. This feast moves to the reader, and we understand why the phrase joie de vivre is untranslatable, except, perhaps, by this young American writer in Paris.
Hemingway hated formula writing. He fumed when Fitzgerald admitted he changed his stories to fit standard tastes for Saturday Evening Post editors and readers. But he had his own formula for the writing process, which is one of the biggest gifts to other writers: “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and to let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
The practice of writing while hungry, going to the deep well of memory and imagination, then resting and forgetting, eating and drinking, returning and writing again–all that was established in Hemingway at the age of 22. He recognized that the best feasts are not only moveable but they are so because deep, mysterious wells fill up the writer’s cup so that the feast continues day to day and place to place.
“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.”
–Ernest Hemingway to a friend, 1950