FIRST, some background. Sarah and I were in Paris a number of years ago, for the second time in our lives together. We were walking along the Seine when we came across this little bookstore called Shakespeare & Company. It was known back in “the day” (and by “the day” I refer to what some see as the golden age of literature — Hemingway, F. Scott, Ezra Pound and the like) as a hangout for those aforementioned writers and their contemporaries. The owner, Sylvia Beach, was well known for lending money and a place to sleep for any writer or artist in need.
The place itself looks like it hasn’t changed in 50 years, and has so many books that it might as well be built out of them. Let’s just say that Barnes & Noble has got nothing on these guys when it comes to inventory. If you walk upstairs, you might just find a little alcove where a “writer in residence” spends the night — surrounded by stacks and stacks of books, all the way to ceiling.
Of course, we had to buy something, which in and of itself would probably be impossible not to do had we visited any bookstore anywhere in the city. Addicts, after all, must avoid their vice if they wish to stay “clean”. This place would knock any bookworm, no matter how resolute, right out of rehab and back into the downward spiral that is literature. But I digress. You see, we HAD to buy a book here, because this was The Place where all the ex-pat literary ghosts of Paris came to share and learn and just be, and where the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of the greatest writers in the history of modern writing still come to be, and where they will always come to be, as long as this place still stands.
So we browsed, and we picked up book after book, and put down book after book, trying to find just the right one for the day and for the moment and for this trip. And somehow, I came across this little book which caught my eye because it seemed familiar: A Moveable Feast. I picked it up, not really remembering what it was, just that I had always wanted to read it. And it just so happened that this book was about Paris, and about Hem’s short life there, and it spoke of a Paris of cafes and long walks and drinking wine and being happy, and that was precisely where we were and what we were doing. It was perfect.
So I bought the book, and Sarah bought something else about Paris, and I resolved to read it before we left Paris. “Sarah,” I said, “I am going to read this book in Paris.” It seemed to so perfect.
But we were so consumed with Paris that I couldn’t read anything, let alone a book about Paris, and so the book went into my luggage and then on to my bookshelf when we got home, and I didn’t touch it for almost 2 years.
2 years later, I read it. I’m glad I waited. It gave the memories time to become part of my soul, and so when I read about Hem and his life in Paris, I could draw from those deep memories and see and feel and hear what Hem was.
A MOVEABLE FEAST, by ERNEST HEMINGWAY.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then whereever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Paris truly is a moveable feast, and I think Hem captured the place perfectly. We’re fortunate that it has not changed so much since his time there.
If I had to criticize this work, it would be because it seems almost like a reluctant memoir. He leaves a lot out (or least it seems so), but then focuses intently on his relationship with F. Scott (obsession? jealousy? secret hatred? or simply a writer’s fascination?). The end is also quite abrupt and unsatisfying. But then again, this is not a story with a start and an end. It captures a moment in time and in the life of Hemingway and his contemporaries, and for that I am grateful.
I will also say that as a writer (or at least one who aspires to be), this was one of the most useful works on how to write that I have read. The advice is simple, and probably not meant so much as advice but rather as observation. But thank you, Hem — I will always do my best to write the truest sentence I know.
If I had to make a suggestion to future readers of this book, it would be: go to Paris. Then read this book. The two events will change your life forever. But if you have to choose just one thing, go to Paris.