Words 2: A Moveable Feast
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
My favorite books are ones with stories. Not just the plot between the covers, not just the characters and their action and dialogue, but a story that take place on its own. The story that answers the simple question we must ask of everything: how and why did it come to be?
Ernest Hemingway’s final book, A Moveable Feast, tells one such story.
I read this book nearing on a year ago and I’ve struggled to write about it for about that long. How ironic that a book full of words can leave you with nothing to say? But here I am, trying to piece together the power of the unsaid we can find in words, in life, and in the story of A Moveable Feast:
After the first of the great wars, a 22-year-old Hemingway - with the rest of Gertrude Stein's coined “Lost Generation” - set out for the promise of Paris. While living in the city with his wife Hadley and their child, Hemingway worked as a struggling journalist before taking the leap to fully convert to a writer.
He was broke. He was young. He was eager. He was searching for the life he longed to live, a life not yet into fruition.
All the while he scribbled down facets of his daily life: time spent in Shakespeare and Company, his first encounter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his favorite drinks, the best places for writing, and all the hopes and defeats he carried with him before he was known as the Hemingway we now know. When he was still in love with his wife, when he was filled with wanting without having, when his eyes were looking forward.
Now skip ahead about forty years. Hemingway has now published 7 novels and 6 collections of short stories, married to his fourth wife, a Nobel recipient, and (knowingly or not) was approaching the self-inflicted end of his life.
He was rich. He was a drunk. He was prone to episodes of manic depression treated with electroshock therapy. And his words no longer came as fluidly as they once did. They no longer came at all.
But then he was contacted by a hotel in Paris, which had in storage two trunks that had belonged to him.
In those trunk were the essays, memories, ideas, and words from before that he had locked away, from the time where his dreams were many and his wants were few, when he was young and happy and invincible in Paris.
Upon revisiting, Hemingway began to approach his past work as a possible novel, each chapter working on its own to tell a story. Of a man. Of Paris. Of dreams. Of the past. And of how that story would end.
He now knew the answers to the questions he asked then. He now knew the reality of those pipe dreams. He now knew the end to what was once a beginning. He would leave his son and Hadley- though he swore he would never love another. He would leave Paris. He would grow old.
I love A Moveable Feast because of its striking duality. In every word, every chapter, you hear the voice of two: him before, him after. You hear the wanting and the having. The having and the having lost.
That makes this book utterly brilliant. And utterly devastating.
Hemingway's style is characterized by stripped back simplicity. Cut away the fillers, cut away the dilutions, cut away anything unnecessary. Leaving only what has to be said, only what can never be said.
His writing is as powerful for what it says as much as all it doesn’t.
There’s a thing that happens while reading where you are forced to stop after finishing a sentence or two. You then reread the words. You look up. And you take a breathe. Just to feel - not describe, for words would never be enough- what your eyes just read and what your heart just felt. You are changed, if in some unknowable way.
You’ll find those moments in this book.
A Moveable Feast dives into that sea where words fail, that mysterious deepness in life trapped only by honest literature. This book is a portrait of a man, a love letter to Paris, and a commentary on life that proves that though we may be damned, our words are our salvation.
“They knew nothing of our pleasures nor how much fun it was to be damned to ourselves and never would know nor could know. Our pleasures, which were those of being in love, were as simple and still as mysterious and complicated as a simple mathematical formula that can mean all happiness or can mean the end of the world.
We were free people now in Paris….” e.h.
*A note on the edition: If you decide to read A Moveable Feast- which I solemnly wish you do- it is crucial to get the restored edition. This edition has eliminated the changes to Hemingway's writing made after his death and includes the addition of several other writings and stories of his that are just as powerful if not more than those included. More so, you are given the chance to see a writer's mind at work as he plays with different versions of the same story that when put together provide even more depth and even more understanding to us, the readers, as we too are searching to be found.
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