Thursday, March 17, 2011

Books: A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemmingway

Seared carp with butter and brandy

If Earnest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is about surface, then the surface in question would surely be a well-appointed dinner table. While obsessing in detail over the delights of Parisian food and liquor, Hemingway casually carves up both friends and acquaintances. They are just another course, really, in this buffet view of life in Paris.  However, like the smooth surface of soup in a tureen, this work's pleasant reflectivity conceals a few lumps. Hemingway uses careful manipulation to make readers think well of Hemingway even while he is poking at other writers. He skillfully brags about his own character in the manner of a good novelist, by showing rather than telling. He shows us, by his own example that what writers say is not to be trusted, nor taken at face value, that surface does not equal truth.

Hemingway spends some 16 pages openly skewering Gertrude Stein. He says her companion was frightening, that Stein was badly dressed, that she craved public recognition for her work but couldn't be bothered revising it, that she was repetitious and lazy, that she prattled endlessly, that she badmouthed any writer who had not already spoken well of her work, that she was so competitive she should couldn't bear to hear about acclaimed writers, that she was an egoist, that she resorted to “dirty easy labels” for others.  After thus dispatching “Miss Stein” handily, Hemingway tries to leave the reader with a good impression of himself. The chapter ends as he spends a part of a very long sentence recalling a speech she had made defending one of the painters. After trashing her for 16 pages, he vows to “serve her and see she gets justice for the good work she has done." Then Hemingway quotes himself in a conversation with his wife: “You know, Gertude is nice, anyway,” he says.  Gee, what a magnanimous, forgiving, always-fair kinda guy.

In the chapter “Shakespeare and Company” Hemingway presents himself as someone who craves books, yet who has enough integrity that he would worry about getting right back that afternoon to pay. In the chapter “Hunger was Good Discipline” he shows us Hemingway, a  man who never complains and who would rather learn the benefits of hunger than borrow money, even to eat. Of course  later on, we see  that in truth he is a betting man, one who would take money he'd collected for charity purposes to help a fellow writer, and lose it betting on crooked races.

He uses the same strategy with regard to marital fidelity. He presents himself as Hemingway the loving husband in several stories. In one, the painter Pacin offers him one of his beautiful models. “Do you want to bang her?” he asks, “She needs it” but dear good Hemingway goes home to his “legitime." Yet, towards the end of the book he offhandedly talks for a page about how complicated it is to have a mistress and a wife.

He implies that he is a trusting man and a gentleman in the chapter on “Ford Madox Ford and the Devil's Disciple.”  Hemingway shows himself inwardly irritated and disgusted with Ford, yet outwardly polite through Ford's “cutting” of Hilaire Belloc, and the long discussion of who is a gentleman. Though Ford insists Hemingway would only possibly be considered a gentleman in Italy, in the end we see he is a propagator of falsities, and has passed off the devil's disciple as a poet.  Hemingway humbly apologizes for passing on this misinformation to someone else. Maybe he is a gentleman after, all a reader might conclude.

Hemingway's Paris memoir was his lush answer to Stein's oddly stark and chatty book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which tells everything and shows little.  While his work is ostensibly a memoir, it is interesting to note that the following disclaimer appears on the copyright page of the Touchstone edition of A Moveable Feast “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.”  Both works skip across the surface of life in Paris like stones across the Seine.  Both feature multiple episodes of dining, of leaving and returning to Paris, of things not said.

However, any writer almost always has a reason for including a vignette about the main character. Hemingway is a clever man and a skilled storyteller who is essentially telling his story his way. He knows very well that things stated plainly are not nearly as memorable things deduced from stories and dialog. This is the pattern in A Moveable Feast. He openly makes unfriendly judgments about other writers, but stays the likable protagonist by imbuing himself with noble qualities implied through action and dialog. When joining Hemingway's moveable feast, - let “Tatie” pick the restaurant; you can trust him to order something delicious, but be sure - with Tatie and every writer - to examine the subtext with a skeptical eye.
- Mar Walker

written 12 October 2003