Unpopular Opinion On a Nonfiction Classic: Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast”

Book review: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Amazon / Book Depository)

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

I’ve never been the biggest Hemingway fan. His choppy sentence style and macho attitude don’t work for me. But I realized that despite having lived there myself, I’d never read his famous account of “being young and poor” in Paris. I also was that at one time, and from a deeply self-serving perspective I was curious about what reading it would make me think of or remember from my own experiences.

Plus it just seems like one of those nonfiction classics you should read at some point. I’d read some appealing quotes from it that were extracted in My Paris Year that made it seem like it might work even for someone who doesn’t have any affinity for Hemingway.

Unfortunately, it mostly served to remind me that I can’t much stand him. A feast isn’t much of a feast for Hemingway unless it’s strictly alcohol-based, or consists of the snails that he snatches off of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s plate while the latter is taking a phone call. He moans about hunger giving you sharper clarity for writing (I guess) and for looking at art in museums, but he always has money to drink if not to eat. But I think he was an alcoholic, so I suppose that makes sense, all things considered.

The subtitle, Sketches of the Author’s Life in Paris in the Twenties, basically tells you everything you’re getting here. These are filmy sketches that alternate between being dully inwardly-focused — really, he’s an unpleasant, griping type who clearly finds himself the most interesting person in any given room, so spending too much time with his inner monologue is exhausting — and some more worthwhile but grainy literary snapshots of the Paris he inhabited.

The emphasis is heavily on being poor but seizing the opportunity of immersing in the rich literary scene that was flourishing in the city in the 1920s, but I felt less of a sense of what that seemingly magical time was like and more bogged down in his relentless penny-pinching and descriptions of how much wine he drank.

I’m not sure why this is considered an essential book about Paris, aside from a few indeed lovely quotes. It’s really just a navel-gazer about Hemingway, and how he and his wife would rather not spend money on clothes in order to travel, and how much some people he meets get on his nerves, and what cafe he spent the day working in and which one he drank in later at night. And how they let a cat babysit their baby. Really. It has a feel of playing at bohemianism and you can sense his sheer delight at how unconventional and naughty he’s being. I felt annoyed with him more than anything.

On the bright side, there are a few interesting insights into the arty world of Paris in that era, when he’s not complaining about his fellow expats and literary peers, and a few meaningful, resonating observations about life in general. Maybe it was worth reading for those, but I can’t say I understood why it’s earned untouchable classic status, either in general nonfiction or literature about Paris.

Some worthwhile bits:

“The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”

“With bad painters all you need to do is not look at them. But even when you have learned not to look at families nor listen to them and have learned not to answer letters, families have many ways of being dangerous.”

“I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that 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.”

“That was the end of the first part of Paris. Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.”

Did you have a very different reaction to A Moveable Feast? Does Hemingway not make you want to roll your eyes until they’re stuck? I’m curious about what others see in this one.

A Moveable Feast: Sketches of the Author’s Life in Paris in the Twenties
by Ernest Hemingway
published 1964

Amazon / Book Depository

14 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion On a Nonfiction Classic: Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast”

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  1. Ooo, I felt annoyed with him just reading this! I don’t care for Hemingway either. As you say, all that machismo is more than I can tolerate. Loved reading your review!

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  2. I enjoyed your review tremendously, it made me laugh. When I was young and green I liked his novels. Have never read this memoir, I agree he sounds tiresome, what with the drinking and the “oh look at me how bohemian am I?” Pose. Reminds me of the Woody Allen monologue (yes I know we are not supposed to like him anymore but I still like his early stuff) about living in Paris in the 20s and it was February and Scott and Zelda had just come home from a New Year’s Eve Party….Also, it reminds me of the mistake I made in reading Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, again in my youth, thinking it would be a nice memoir of Paris..Miller is another insufferable macho and the book was basically a boring and fairly graphic description of his many couplings, yuck, quelle horreur!

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    1. Happy I could make you laugh, makes the slog through this book worthwhile! I vaguely remember thinking The Sun Also Rises was ok, but that was pretty much it. His attitude annoys me and his style just isn’t appealing. I know what you mean, I still like some of Woody Allen’s stuff and I loved Midnight in Paris. I haven’t read Miller’s but blech, I don’t want to know anything about his couplings, especially if it’s graphic detail. I think men only write about that to brag, there’s never any deeper meaning to it. Luckily Hemingway was married so there’s minimal amounts of that in this one, although he still comments weirdly on women, but his attitude towards everything else was annoying enough. Quelle horreur indeed!

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    1. I do tend to like snippets but his just didn’t do much for me. I wanted to see, hear, and feel more and it always felt like something lacking. That’s a good point, that he did find joy in it all despite being poor and miserable, but I think I felt the misery and bleakness of it a little too strongly!

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  3. I somehow agree with every word you said about it but still quite enjoyed The Moveable Feast! He wrote it, what, four decades after the time it depicts? (and yet somehow remembers what kind of wine he had at every meal) with SUCH rose-colored glasses about 20s Paris, about his first wife and first marriage, and with so much bragging about the other artists he was hanging out with (with lots of obvious sour grapes about them thrown in) that I thought it was highly amusing. Especially his idea of “poor” (wine every night! Eating out every night! A nanny! Fabulous vacations! Skiing! The French Riviera!). And trying to justify bringing his wife AND mistress on the same trip, lol! And there were several amazing sentences or descriptions (the guy with the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist etc.) that really stuck with me. The way he depicts his relationships with Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds — he so utterly fails in his attempts to depict himself as the good guy/best artist in the room and is so obvious in the attempt I was laughing. I don’t know anything about his fourth wife other than that she was much younger and that she helped edit this book — I just can’t believe a fourth wife would leave such positivity and regret about a first wife (although it does take more expected pot shots at the second).

    I read A Farewell to Arms decades ago and thought it was ok, and I recently tried The Old Man and the Sea but had to give up because it was sooooo boring. After reading The Paris Wife, though, I’m now tempted to read The Sun Also Rises, I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

    And I also very much agree with the comment above re: the comparison with Henry Miller. Henry Miller–and his experience of Paris–are both so, so awful. (those poor women!) My book club meeting on The Tropic of Cancer was the best meeting ever, though, because everyone hated it SO MUCH that it made for the most hilarious discussion.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it had so many highlights for you! It’s good to hear what others appreciated about it. I always feel a bit frustrated when I can’t see in a “classic” what so many others seem to, so that’s helpful to know. I agree it was impressive what he could remember, especially considering how much he was drinking during that time, but I was just skeptical about his recall of so many details, unless maybe much of this was drawn from his writings / journals at the time. That seemed possible. His relationships were certainly interesting and unconventional! I found myself most interested in Hadley, as kind of like his female characters in his novels she was never quite fully fleshed out. I remember that’s what I absolutely hated in A Farewell to Arms.

      The Sun Also Rises was the one that I thought was mostly ok. I don’t actually remember all that much about it, just that I was surprised that I pretty much liked it.

      The Henry Miller one sounds atrocious. I hate those kind of books that are just manly congratulations on all the lucky women they’ve been with. Gross. I can imagine it would make for an amazing book club discussion though!!

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  4. Hello! I’ve never read this one (though I’ve had it recommended to me often) and only read The Sun Also Rises of Hemingway’s longer works. I have read and enjoyed many of his short stories, though, and I think it is in that form that he is strongest. I agree that It’s also hard to “enjoy” the writing of someone you know isn’t a nice person, but sometimes I can pull it off. 🙂

    I wonder if you’ve read Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”? It was a surprise hit with my book club a few years ago, and your descriptions of A Movable Feast reminded me of it.

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