A Moveable Feast
This is about how Paris was in the early days when Mr. Hemingway was very poor and very happy and handling himself very carefully because he knew there were going to be some rough contests, not only with Mr. Turgenev and Mr. Stendhal but also with life, “the greatest left-hooker so far, although many say it was Charley White of Chicago.” The sadness of the book comes at the end because it explains that something got lost and the author was no longer making love with whom he loved, an activity to which he attached much importance. But it also speaks very happily about Paris, which is the best place in the world to write in. It explains writing carefully: the great thing is not to describe but to make, not to invent but omit. And to be a good writer, as Hemingway has formerly explained, you need a built-in shit-detector. With one of those, working well, you can purge not only your prose but your acquaintance; so this book tells how Hemingway detected Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis and even Gertrude Stein, though it also tells how and why he put up with Scott Fitzgerald. It also tells about skiing, horse-racing, and fire-swallowing; about fishing in the Seine and the troubles of waiters, and how the Kansas City whores drank semen as a specific against tuberculosis. If I make it sound a little as if the figure of Lillian Ross’s Papa must be casting a shadow over the book I do it no wrong. But I do it wrong beyond question if I seem to suggest that it could have been written by any but a great writer. This is, in some ways, Hemingway’s best book since the 1920s and that makes it altogether exceptional.
At the beginning we have him sitting in a café on the Place St. Michel writing “Up in Michigan”; he names the streets he walked by to keep out of the wind, as elsewhere his route is determined by the need to avoid foodshops. A girl waiting in the café provides a kind of emblem of what he is feeling, and gets into the act; he sees her when he breaks off to sharpen a pencil, and she belongs to him as he to his craft. Finishing the story he feels “empty and happy, as though I had made love.” This passage, which is about writing, is written not only with the skills but in the manner acquired during the period in which it is set, and so is the book as a whole. Some of the older attitudinizing Hemingway has got into it, certainly—a sort of sentimental understanding of his own gifts and problems. But the book has that sharpness and suggestiveness which Hemingway means to achieve when he pursues his famous policy of omitting the known, the familiar links with other experience. And the power of it comes from its being a return—though by a man still …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Hemingway & Ford July 9, 1964