A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast was published posthumously in 1964. It is composed of poignant sketches looking back on Hemingway’s time in France with his first wife and their baby Jack, known as Bumby. It is set after World War I, when Hemingway was an unknown, struggling American writer living in poverty above a sawmill, writing in the cafes and roaming the streets of Paris.

As part of this nostalgic return to France, Hemingway recounted stories about various writers and artists he knew there, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. (Some comrades are painted in flattering detail, while others are spitefully eviscerated.)

He was married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, while living in Paris – his first of four marriages. Hemingway provides a tender and moving description of Hadley and their relationship in this memoir. She was the love of his life, the one he later despaired about leaving all those years ago. This book was Hemingway's tribute to her. She was his hero, his muse, who helped him gain his footing and find his writer’s voice; he was both a cosmically gifted writer and a conflicted bum who betrayed her. Their time in Paris seemed magical until it wasn’t.

Paris, itself, is an original character in the book. The city is described in great detail: its arrondissements or districts, trains, streets, cafes, and stores. Hemingway certainly prized Paris as the “City of Light” and all it had to offer a struggling young writer. The title of the book came from a fragment of a letter he wrote to a friend in 1950: “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.”

Hemingway wrote nostalgically about Hadley, Bumby and their time together in Paris. Notebooks, found in one of his old trunks in the storage basement of the city’s[?] Ritz Hotel in 1956, helped him piece together the smallest details. Certain words or fragments triggered memories. The notebooks were an invaluable time capsule of Paris and the people, places, and events Hemingway knew there from 1921 to 1926.

One can sense, from his writing in this book, that Hemingway wished to go back to the beginning, when he was an unknown writer – when his writing was pure, uncorrupted by fame and wealth. He wanted to return to the time when he was a determined, serious, and disciplined writer and was still married to the decent, open-hearted, and beautiful Hadley. He needed to re-create and savor those pleasant times, when they “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”

Along with Hemingway’s descriptions of his life and Paris, there were glimpses of his writing process, how he understood his talent, and how committed he was to achieving literary success. One learns about his early experiments with short stories and how he worked up to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. Hemingway knew he was a skilled writer. He sought to protect his gift so it would always be there, as if he were drawing from a hidden spring.  He dedicated The Sun Also Rises to Hadley and his son, and transferred its copyright to Hadley in their divorce settlement.

Hemingway wrote many short-story collections and novels in his career. He led a colorful and flawed life of travel, hunting, fishing, adventure, and failed marriages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. And yet he experienced a debilitating mental collapse – a long decline  fueled by guilt, drink, and mental illness. Leaving Hadley haunted him; it was the self-inflicted wound that never healed. Hemingway completed A Moveable Feast in 1960. He killed himself with a gunshot to the head in 1961.

A Moveable Feast will always be a favorite Hemingway work. Not because the others fall short, but because it was a bittersweet fairy tale, told with longing and regret, about an enchanted city, a remarkable writer, and his lovely young wife whom he betrayed. Read it and feel transported. But do not be surprised if it breaks your heart.