Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

"(...) this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

Woody Allen has released a movie on Ernest Hemingway's Paris. I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know until what extent the movie is faithful to the experience of Hemingway in Paris. It probably isn't. Beyond romanticism, life in Paris was hard for Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. A sweetened version of Paris'  bohème in the 1920s has more chances to be a commercial success than a story about poverty, Hemingway's addiction to gambling, and the breakup of his first marriage.

The true story, at least from Hemingway's perspective, is available in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's posthumous book. This is a great book for three audiences:

Hemingway's groupies (no need to elaborate on this, since groupies usually know more and better than anybody else).

Paris' groupies. There are a lot of kinds of Paris groupies: the ones who know a lot about the city, and the ones who pretend. Both groups will find the book very interesting. Did you know, for instance, that up until the mid 1920s there were goatherds in the nowadays prestigious and chic Quartier Latin¿ Oh, yes, there were:
"The goatherd came blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers. The goatherd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing. I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk. She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and then the shutting of her door. She was the only customer for goat milk in our building. (taken from  'A False Spring')"
American literature majors. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Hemingway... all of them were there at the same time. If you want to know how they got along with each other, this is the place to start.

There is a fourth audience for this book: people who want to learn how to write professionally. The latest edition of A Moveable Feast contains a lot of material rejected by Hemingway, one of which is a text called "On Writing in the First Person", highly recommended.

But probably the value of this book lies in its appeal to readers that don't belong to any constituency. Hemingway deals with two topics in a very elegant way: one is poverty. Hemingway shows that he was basically starving without complaining, which is very hard to say or write about:
"I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought it was possibly only that he had forgotten to eat. (taken from 'Hunger Was Good Discipline')"
 The second one is the breakup of his first marriage. Biographers argue that Hemingway's first divorce represented the beginning of a long depression and decay. The following paragraph suggests there is some reason to believe so:
"I loved her and I loved no one else and we had a lovely magic time while we were alone. I worked well and we made great trips, and it wasn't until  we were out of the mountains in late spring, and back in Paris that the other thing started again. Remorse was a fine good thing and with a little luck and if I'd been a better man it might have saved me for something worse probably instead of being my true and constant companion for the next three years. (taken from 'The Pilot Fish and the Rich')

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