Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway on the Writing Life in Paris of the 1920s

A Moveable Feast covers Ernest Hemingway’s early years in Paris stretching from 1922 to 1925. He was poor then, often going hungry, but it doesn’t seem that way as you read the story. He always found money to bet on the races, and for travel, and dining out.

He had so many friends. Some famous, others like himself, crawling their way up out of the gutter. There was Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Sylvia Beach (the owner of the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore), and F. Scott Fitzgerald just after the publication of The Great Gatsby (when it wasn’t selling).

And, there was gambling and drinking, and literary talk, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s plunge into insanity.

Paris was good and evil combined. But, it was all about the people.

Gertrude Stein “was very big but not tall and was heavily built like a peasant woman.” She talked constantly, advising Hemingway not to worry so much about food or fancy clothes. He should save his money and invest in quality art. Don’t buy the every day, look for talented artists your own age, and invest in them.

More than anything, he needed to watch his wife. Her desire for fine clothes, shoes, and expensive food could ruin him.

Gertrude Stein was always trying to change him. “There were so many things to understand in those days and I was glad when we talked about something else.” Hemingway believed work was the answer to his problems. He was sure Miss Stein thought the problem was his youth and his wife.

Better yet, were his tips on writing. 

Never let the well run dry. Write as much as you can but stop before you finish. Hemingway liked to let his ideas fester and twist in his mind. His subconscious would rework the story a thousand times while he slept, and in the morning, it would come out just so.

But, he was a slow writer, often turning out just a paragraph a day. Everything started with one true sentence, and then another. Writing was hard work, and Paris was full of distractions. 

Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore and lending library provided Hemingway with books and small infusions of cash when it was most needed. She had “pretty legs” and “loved to make jokes and gossip.”

My only problem is, we see so little of her.

And, of course, there was the self-doubt. At times, Hemingway felt he was a “dirty phony “and a whiner. But, as he said, “all writers ever talk about is their troubles.” The words don’t come as quickly as they should, and when they do, the money is no good. 

It wasn’t just Hemingway who was filled with self-doubt. F. Scott Fitzgerald, his best friend at that time was a walking, talking wall of doubt and self-pity and hypochondria. Scott convinced himself he was dying of this or of that and shamed Hemingway into chasing down a thermometer or medicine or just making him feel sorry for him. 

But, after he read The Great Gatsby, Hemingway forgave Fitzgerald everything. He was a serious writer. 

What troubled Hemingway was the crap Fitzgerald turned out to keep himself flush with cash. He wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, and other rags.

Fitzgerald explained, first he wrote the story he wanted to write. Then he changed it up, adding the plot twists and turns and characters the popular magazines wanted.

What else could he do? 

He needed money to live on to write his serious fiction, and magazines didn’t want literary stories. They wanted popular fiction that thrilled and excited their readers. He exchanged his pride for money.

Hemingway tried to convince him otherwise, but Scott needed money to keep up his lifestyle and please Zelda.

And, the ending is troublesome. Hemingway hinted at an affair that would tear his marriage with Hadley apart, but he left it hanging. His words here were perfect. “All things truly wicked start from innocence. So, you live day by day and enjoy what you have and do not worry. You lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is more dangerous, but you live day to day as in war.”

There is so much more, but you need to read the book.


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