I first read Ernest Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST in the summer after my sophomore year of college, about six weeks before I was scheduled to fly to France to study abroad for four months in Aix-En-Provence. I had started studying French because of how intoxicating I found the language F. Scott Fitzgerald and some of the other modernists who included the language in sentence-length blocks untranslated in their works. TENDER IS THE NIGHT, in particularly, seemed to reveal its most heartbreaking secrets in French, and while I was devastated by the book, I felt, too, that parts of its secrets were withheld from me, left dangling in French, in plain sight.
The first time: I was not married, I was not a father, I had not truly emotionally left home, I had not read ULYSSES, I had not read THE GOOD SOLDIER, I had not read “The Waste Land,” and I had never been to Paris. What resonated with me the first time: Hemingway’s instruction on craft and revision, and the meticulous process of day in, day out monotony; also, how casually and frequently they all drank.
The second time: I felt so keenly the remorse of a man who had, perhaps, achieved his artistic vision, and, months from suicide, did not revel in the books that had established his reputation and legacy, but focused on the daily charms of what in his time amounted to a good life: getting firewood to stay warm, making love to Hadley before going out to dinner with friends, walking around a beautiful city, looking at great paintings, trying to stay warm in the winter rain, working, working as hard as he could. I was also struck the book’s final pages where he described the steady, quiet joy of the months spent in the mountains with Hadley and Bumby while skiing and playing in the snow, only to be interrupted by the other thing, by which he meant a woman–Pauline–and so quickly he went to New York to “rearrange publishers,” and came back to Paris only to miss his train, and the second, and the third, and afterwards, nothing was the same. And in that paragraph, as an older man now, 35, a husband, a father, I felt his remorse at the life he threw away. He was, in the end, a man who was not at peace with himself, a man who had not forgiven himself, for anything.
If T.S. Eliot was right, and we must divorce our knowledge of the artist’s biography from the artist’s work, then we can dispense with Hemingway’s sins as a man, his failures as a human, get past it all, and remember his achievement. I started with A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which shattered me into pieces, which, as they say, was the book to which I lost my “literary virginity.” I was not as moved by THE SUN ALSO RISES, but if after reading ARMS you want more, I recommend his legendary short story “Up in Michigan.” Ask yourself why the doctor’s brother is smoking a cigar in the story. And, after reading the fiction, indulge in the walk to the Closerie de Lilas for a white wine with Joyce and the rest. At Powells and elsewhere. Cheers!