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A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

”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.” Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway in Paris

I hadn’t planned to read this book until I read this great article in the The Atlantic that was published recently by Joe Fassler that consists of a conversation he had with Daniel Woodrell. This article which whether you care one wit about Woodrell or for that matter Ernest Hemingway is still an inspiring read. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/09/two-tacos-for-i-a-moveable-feast-i-a-writers-life-changing-barter-in-tijuana/279273/ Woodrell while bumming around Mexico found himself negotiating a trade with a hungry young American of a meal for a copy of A Moveable Feast. Woodrell ended up buying two tacos for a book that changed his life. He was ni-ni-nin-teen. He read the book through several times and for the price of two tacos it set him on the course to being a writer.

I have not read Hemingway for decades. I often think of him as a gateway drug to better literature. As you can imagine ever since my son was old enough to read I’ve been chucking books at him that I felt that he should read with frankly disappointing results. Books stabbed with bristling bookmarks littered his room and were left for dead. I realized I was trying to move him forward too fast and so I thought about what I liked to read when I was first becoming a reader. I tossed Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Rice Burroughs into his room. The books came back gnawed and masticated.

I did a little dance.

Then I gave him Hemingway.

I heard the snap of the bear trap.

He read everything he could get his hands on by Hemingway. In fact he has now read more Hemingway than I have. He then went on to Fitzgerald and expanded out to reading some film history books. By the whisker of my chiny chin chin he became a reader.

Despite the ease in reading Hemingway’s sparse prose I found myself squirming every time I sat down to read this book. I like vocabulary and the Oxford English Dictionary has listings for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words. So when we write we have a choice of 228,132 words to express ourselves. It feels like Hemingway cuts out 227,000 of them. The average literate adult knows 50,000, but may only use 17,000 and some studies show as low as 5,000. If you count for instance DRIVE, DRIVER AND DRIVES as three separate words our language blossoms to over 600,000 entries.

Hemingway was bucking against the establishment when he decided that adjectives were not necessary and sliced his prose down to just the bare minimum of what the reader needs.

Short sentences, short words.

I don’t mind some purple in my prose. William Faulkner’s famous epic opening sentence for Absalom! Absalom! was 1,288 words long. James Joyce in Ulysses made a mockery out of that with a sentence 4,391 words long. The fact of the matter is Hemingway has been canonized and his minimized writing style had a huge impact on the next generations of writers. I cringe whenever I hear anyone say if there is a simpler word use it. This all said a writer does have a responsibility to write to their audience.

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The One and Only Gertrude Stein

Hemingway had some...well... interesting conversations with Gertrude Stein. Stein for the record gives me the willies more so when she expresses her opinions. The Lost Generation, as this group of creative people in Paris were called, flocked to her door and fell at her feet. She commanded respect and if you did not give that respect you were not invited back.

”I had started this conversation and thought it had become a little dangerous. There were almost never paused and there were something she wanted to tell me and I filled my glass.
‘You know nothing about any of this really, Hemingway,’ She said. ‘You’ve met known criminals and sick people and vicious people. The main thing is that the act male homosexuals commit is ugly and repugnant and afterwards they are disgusted with themselves. They drink and take drugs, to palliate this, but they are disgusted with the act and they are always changing partners and cannot be really happy.’
‘I see.’
‘In women it is the opposite. They do nothing that they are disgusted by and nothing that is repulsive and afterwards they are happy and they can lead happy lives together.’
‘I see.’”

I see. I see. I see.

Hemingway also spent some time with Fitzgerald. His portrayal of F. Scott is not the most endearing, but then I have no illusions about Fitzgerald and his destructive lifestyle, in particular, his debilitating drinking. Hemingway did admire Scott’s writing.

”His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a Butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it was effortless.”

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Ernest Hemingway (The Bull) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Butterfly).

Hemingway becomes exasperated with the devastating influence that Zelda had on Fitzgerald’s life and writing. She wanted to drink, party, and be merry all the time. Zelda Sayre broke up with F. Scott after they became engaged. He was determined to become famous in an effort to win her back. He wrote This Side of Paradise and sent it out for consideration to publishers. The result: he lined the walls of his study with the rejection slips. After a third revision Maxwell Perkins went to bat for him and Scribners decided to publish. The book sold out in three days.

It makes me wonder if F. Scott had never met Zelda would he have ever become a successful writer? She was his muse and his kryptonite.

One thing I have discovered over the years in watching the relationship gymnastics of my friends is that we can not help who we fall in love with. It is mystical and sometimes makes no sense even to ourselves.

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I’ve always liked this picture of the The Fitzgeralds.

A source of contention between Zelda and F. Scott was that all those wonderful witty bits of dialogue that came out of her mouth ended up in his writing. She had literary aspirations herself and felt that he was stealing her best material.

I wish I’d read this book when I was ni-ni-nin-teen because maybe I’d be a brilliant regional writer like Daniel Woodrell. (It could have been me being knocked silly on an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain.) If you do not know much about the Lost Generation and their time in Paris this isn’t a bad place to start. It will be a quick read and should lead to other books and a new found interest in a period of time when it felt like everything was possible and change wasn’t something to be feared.