A Moveable Feast: Classic Memoir, Classic Metaphor

On the memoir bookshelf in my home office sit at least 100 memoirs.  Many of these are classics I read long ago without thinking of them as memoirs.  Some, like the one I focus on now, are famous books that fit the category but that I have never read.  Thinking about genre has allowed me to find and rediscover books and read them with a new eye for form and substance.

Several people have told me that Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is on the list of their top ten memoirs. Now I understand why.

But first I must admit that I could not escape the thought, reading this book, that an ailing man in his 60’s who will soon commit suicide is writing it.  (He finished the book in the fall of 1960.  On July 2, 1961, he pulled both triggers of a double-barreled shotgun aimed at his head.)  Oh yes, and did I mention that, as I write these words, I am almost as old as the old man.

Hemingway the old man breathes in this book.  We see the old man as he looks at his young first wife Hadley almost as if to say that she was the mold for all the other women who followed.   We see the old man as we read the deep appreciation for Sylvia Beach and her generous lending policies and nurturing spirit toward struggling young writers at her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.

The word portraits the old man paints of Gertrude Stein and her “companion” (never mentioning the name of Alice B. Toklas) and of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald bring them to life as complex human beings with great talent and greater failings.  Hemingway the competitor assessing other competitors comes through even though in 1960 both Stein and Fitzgerald are dead.  This memoir destroys Gertrude Stein’s claim to have invented the phrase, “The Lost Generation” and shows Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and his wife to be the enemy of his art.

Ironically, the alcoholism and difficulties with women Hemingway sees in Fitzgerald, as well as the fierce protection of reputation and competition with other writers he describes in Stein, apply equally to himself.  How self-aware and reader-aware could he have been?  We cannot know, and, because the book succeeds brilliantly in other ways, we do not care.

Throughout, Hemingway employs the metaphor of eating and drinking to describe how important writing was to him when he was living in Paris from the ages of 22 to 27.  He quotes Hadley as saying, “Memory is hunger.”  The scenes in this memoir alternate between the gnawing of near starvation and the relish of simple food and drink–tangerines, chestnuts, oysters, little goujon fish pulled out of the Seine and consumed bones and all.  We feel the immense appetites of the young man as he writes, walks, talks, gossips, gambles, and makes love.  This feast moves to the reader, and we understand why the phrase joie de vivre is untranslatable, except, perhaps, by this young American writer in Paris.

Hemingway hated formula writing.  He fumed when Fitzgerald admitted he changed his stories to fit standard tastes for Saturday Evening Post editors and readers.  But he had his own formula for the writing process, which is one of the biggest gifts to other writers:  “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 to let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

The practice of writing while hungry, going to the deep well of memory and imagination, then resting and forgetting, eating and drinking, returning and writing again–all that was established in Hemingway at the age of 22.  He recognized that the best feasts are not only moveable but they are so because deep, mysterious wells fill up the writer’s cup so that the feast continues day to day and place to place.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

–Ernest Hemingway to a friend, 1950

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Classic Memoir/Autobiography, My Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Moveable Feast: Classic Memoir, Classic Metaphor

  1. Only moments ago, I was writing to a friend about how Hemingway was able to make me want to eat oysters in A Movable Feast, even though in reality, I do not like oysters at all. It's time to revisit the book. It's one of my favorites by Hemingway.

  2. Shirley says:

    Synchronicity! I feel the same way about those oysters. That's the power of language.

  3. GutsyWriter says:

    Hi Shirley,I sent you two awards in my posting today. If you have time to respond, great, if not, don't worry. I just thought you deserved them. Take Care,Sonia aka GutsyWriter.

  4. Lijo says:

    This memoir destroys Gertrude Stein’s claim to have invented the phrase, “The Lost Generation” and shows Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and his wife to be the enemy of his art.Did Gertrude Stein really ever claim she invented the phrase? If I recall it correctly she told the story behind it in the autobiographie of Alice B. Toklas just as Hemingway did in A Moveable Feast…(with the garage owner), or did I mix something up there?Is it wrong to dislike Hemingway because of the way he portraied Stein and Fitzgerald? I've got to admit , it's quite entertaining, yey, but I think its an awful thing to do to former (and dead) friends. Saints and Spinners: Really? I found it disgusting with the muscle and all…. 😉

  5. Shirley says:

    I'm touched, Sonia. I will come visit you on your blog and let you know I appreciate your thinking of me. And I want to get to know some of the great group of people who follow you!

  6. Shirley says:

    Lijo, Your question is a good one about what Stein claimed. I did not look up what she said in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, so you may be right about her attribution there. I recall from my grad school days reading somewhere that Hemingway did not like that people gave Stein credit for coining this phrase. I may have overstated that she herself made the claim, so thanks for giving me this chance to rethink my words above. I looked up the origin of the phrase and found this article online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Generation. Thanks for the visit.

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  8. Linda says:

    Hi Shirley:Thanks for sharing. I love this book. I love how it triggers the senses. For a more analytical and contemporary take on Paris, you might want to check out Paris to the Moon.Linda

  9. shirleyhs says:

    Good to see you here, Linda. I would love to check out Paris to the Moon.

  10. Linda says:

    Hi Shirley:Thanks for sharing. I love this book. I love how it triggers the senses. For a more analytical and contemporary take on Paris, you might want to check out Paris to the Moon.Linda

  11. shirleyhs says:

    Good to see you here, Linda. I would love to check out Paris to the Moon.

  12. Pingback: Papa Hemingway’s Memoir: A Moveable Feast Redux | 100 Memoirs

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