Last week the BF and I did a Paris-themed date night from the claustrophobic comfort of our condo. I made a playlist with Edith Piaf, cracked a bottle of wine and put a Youtube tour of the Louvre on in the background. I also started reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his Paris years in the 20’s- I’d been saving it for my next physical trip to the City of Lights, but as that trip might be years out, I thought I’d indulge in a little armchair travel.
This was the first Hemingway book I’ve ever read, so I came to it with minimal expectations for Hemingway’s writing but big expectations for the magic and spectacle of Paris in the roaring 20’s. I was underwhelmed by the former and disappointed by the latter.
Hemingway is whiny- complaining about how little money he had- but also somehow being able to eat oysters and drink wine. He is insulting and demeaning nearly all the people he describes, save somewhat for F. Scott Fitzgerald, who I didn’t see any reason to love (Scott comes off as a wealthy eccentric that would’ve driven me crazy- Hemingway describes a trip from Lyon to Paris in a car that Scott had cut the roof off of and they get caught in the rain). Hemingway is dismissive and uncomplimentary of most women: he describes Zelda Fitzgerald as ‘crazy’ (which seems rich given his tolerance of Scott’s eccentricities) and he says that he can’t respect Gertrude Stein- despite how much he benefitted from her help- after overhearing her argue with her lover, Alice. He is also crudely insulting of some men, particularly Ford Madox Ford- Hemingway writes that Ford smells so horrible he can’t be indoors next to him. As with Gertrude Stein, this is despite Ford having assisted Hemingway in his career.
Even when not insulting people, Hemingway does not come off well- he is arrogant and a know-it-all, as when he is asked to ‘look after’ a young Canadian boxer recently arrived in Paris, he knows more about boxing than either the boxer or the actual coach. At another point he briefly alludes to the ‘unhappiness’ that comes into his marriage, and later you find out that it is because he has been having an affair (which isn’t his fault- it’s the fault of the rich people who introduced him to the other woman- big eye roll here).
The small part of the memoir that I enjoyed wasn’t set in Paris at all- rather it is the chapter that takes place in Schruns, Austria, where Hemingway and his first wife spend their winters. He describes daily life, skiing, the townspeople, etc., and you really get a feel for a small town socked in by the snow, rooms with fireplaces and featherbeds where you can see the stars at night. I also liked some of the fragments that didn’t make it into full chapters, which captured the magic and nostalgia I was hoping for:
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 no how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.
I’m glad I didn’t save this book for a real trip to Paris; now my disappointment can be absorbed into the dumpster fire that is 2020.