Hemingway makes me think of the debate streaming though comment threads on Goodreads. The debate centres on the issue of discussing an author in book reviews, Goodreads suggesting that reviews focus only on the content of a book and not stray into opinions about the personality or character of the author.
Being a book review site, it may not seem like an unreasonable request, except that the site has allowed five years of historical reviews to build up without comment, guidance or reprimand against reviews that may have crossed this line and in the meantime a strong community of reviewers has developed, spreading its roots and reviews deep into the site. Unsurprisingly, the community is now rebelling against wilful deletions of reviews. Some are threatening to abandon the Goodreads ship while its Captain is said to be sailing on oblivious to mutiny in its hold.
I think of Hemingway because in A Moveable Feast, he writes not just about himself, he reflects on writers he was acquainted with in Paris and about life in that city after the First World War. He shares exactly the kind of opinions that are forbidden to reviewers today. However, he is not writing a book review, he is writing about life.
Apart from the delightful short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place, I have not read Hemingway since the trauma of having to study The Old Man and The Sea at school. I am sorry to say that I detested this novel and although nothing of the prose has stayed with me, a kind of nausea, akin to sitting in a rocking boat with no means of rowing it, engulfs me when remembering it. I didn’t understand at the time why I reacted like this, worse than boredom, it was bereft of literary merit according to my 13-year-old standards.
Knowing now of Hemingway’s deliberate intention to strip his prose bare and understanding my love of the metaphor and habit to underline and admire the more descriptive linguistic passages, I see that we are not a good pair. But having met the writer again through the lives of Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z, I was intrigued to read his non-fiction account of life in Paris.
The chapters read like a series of vignettes, encapsulating the many aspects that made up his life during that time. He writes about the cafes he frequented and in particular the plight of two waiters, whom when the new management of the café decides it wants to attract a higher calibre of client, insists his employees shave their mustaches and wear a uniform. Hemingway and friend are poured overfull whiskeys by the waiter and they drink them in protest.
“They’re changing the management.” Evan said. “The new owners want to have a different clientele that will spend some money and they are going to put in an American bar. The waiters are going to be in white jackets, Hem, and they have been ordered to be ready to shave off their mustaches.”
“They can’t do that to André and Jean.”
“They shouldn’t be able to, but they will.”
Jean has had a mustache all his life. That’s a dragoon’s mustache. He served in a cavalry regiment.”
“He’s going to have to cut it off.”
He reflects on his habits as a writer and here we meet a man who was dedicated to his métier above all. He writes about his deliberate strategy to eliminate the adjective, to let the words stand alone without any qualifiers or modifiers, the naked verb. His aim is like the writing equivalent of meditation, de-cluttering the page instead of the mind. He would not have made a great meditator, as he was fearful of emptying the mind.
“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 let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
F.Scott Fitzgerald was a good friend. Both chapters that describe events with Fitzgerald show just how erratic his behaviour was and Hemingway suffers from having his writing discipline disrupted on a trip back to Paris from Lyon having recuperated a convertible car Scott and Zelda had abandoned due to the rain.
“I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.”
A Moveable Feast is an excellent read, sharing moments of life in Paris, we are introduced to some of Hemingway’s favourite cafés to write in, his conversations with Gertrude Stein and others about writing, up until he fell out of favour after publishing a mockery of another author’s work which she and others disapproved of, perceiving his act as disloyal to a fellow writer. He becomes a regular at the famous English bookshop Shakespeare & Co, where he is able to lend books, having no money to buy them and reads his way through Turgenev, D.H.Lawrence and Dostoevsky as well as striking up a friendship with the owner Sylvia Beach, a pleasant source of gossip as well as books.