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