Richard Louth is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, founding Director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and creator of the New Orleans Writing Marathon—where
writers, like Hemingway, move across the city writing about their lives and observations in cafes, pubs, and other similar locations.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil. (A Moveable Feast, 6)
There’s only one book that I read every year and it is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his book about being an expatriate writer in 1920’s Paris. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, since there are so many problems associated with the book besides the fact that is full of sentences like the one above. (Haughty, assertive sentences consciously omitting the comma before the “and” that connects independent clauses—there are at least four of these on the first page of the book alone, and they are a trademark of Hemingway’s often poorly imitated style.)
More serious problems range from it being by Hemingway (the macho man that Woody Allen burlesqued in Midnight in Paris and that some postmodern readers love to hate just because of his public image) to its textual problems (allegedly generated from old journals mysteriously unearthed after WWII in the cellar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, published posthumously in 1964 after being patched together and given a title by his fourth wife, then re-published in a less polished “Restored Edition” under the supervision of grandson Sean in 2010), to its factual inaccuracies (such as the false assertion that Fitzgerald didn’t offer suggestions on the first draft of A Sun Also Rises) and general vindictiveness towards old associates and competitors (such as Gertrude Stein, John dos Passos, and Fitzgerald). Whew! And we haven’t even touched on the problem yet of what genre it is: How can it be nonfiction memoir when the author himself says in the Preface that “this book may be regarded as fiction”? (Hemingway was afraid of libel, but still, much of the book is fiction if we define fiction as “invention” or “the opposite of true fact”).
Given it problems, why do I return to this book each year?
It’s not because I teach it, though I do.
I’ve assigned it in a graduate seminar about William Faulkner and his contemporaries and more recently as the first book in a new creative nonfiction course entitled “Autobiography and Life Writing.” Students in that course, unencumbered with questions of literary history, genre, and academic ideologies responded positively to the book, I think, because they were primarily interested in the story a man told about his life and how he told that story—that is, the quality of the writing.
And I think that is why I return to it each year myself. I’ll uncork a bottle of Bordeaux, as I’m doing right now to review it, get comfortable in my reading chair, pretend I’ve never read it before, and turn to the first page of my cracked, old Bantam edition where a photo of a bridge crossing the Seine graces the cover, then read the first sentence: “Then there was the bad weather” (3). And I’m there. The “Then” always tricks me in. Still does. “When?” I ask. “What just happened before?” And I can’t put the book down. I’m not a teacher or a writer as I read this book for pleasure (I’ll be these later), but I’m simply there, with him, hanging a damp coat and hat in a warm café, shaving the end of a pencil with a penknife, and feeling what it is like to be an unknown writer writing a story he can’t help but write. Eating oysters when I’m done, then looking around the room and spotting someone who intrigues me, whose story I’d like to know. I usually read the entire book in one sitting, and the reason I can do this is not just because I’m familiar with the story, but because the writing itself is so good.
What makes it so good, especially given the problems I’ve mentioned above?
Is it just because I’ve fallen in love with Hemingway’s mythical world of Paris (as Woody Allen’s Owen Wilson character does)? Well, if I weren’t a writer, I’d have to say yes. Who doesn’t want to read about a past brimming with life, flowing with food and wine and famous people, that always seems to come back to a city you love and a companion who loves you? Who can put down a book about a character learning his craft, growing up, discovering a new world inside and outside himself, and journeying from innocence to experience right before your eyes? There’s no reason not to love the book for the story it tells and the Paris it creates, whether they are as fictional or as nonfictional. I suspect that is why it became so popular in the first place, and one reason I’ll continue to read A Moveable Feast with simple pleasure each year.
But I also get another kind of pleasure from it—one that kicks in after each reading, when I cork the bottle of wine (or what little is left of it), take out my own pen, and ask where its true beauty lies and what it can teach me as a teacher and writer. When I begin to work at it, looking at it closely as a work of art (just as Hemingway himself says on page 69 he studied the Cezannes at the museum in Paris’s Luxemboug gardens), the book takes on new hues, new meanings.
Study the first page of the first chapter (“A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel”). I’ll have my nonfiction students copy that page in their journals, then ask them to “mark it up,” circling words that stand out or repeat, marking patterns, shifts, and surprises in the prose. Just as Hemingway began to notice the architectonic patterns of Cezanne’s brushstrokes, mine notice the repetition of “and” and of rain and wind and weather and drunkenness, and how these all are used to create the “sadness of the city” (4) that Hemingway seeks refuge from in this café and in his writing. A closer look at the whole chapter then demonstrates larger, subtler patterns—how it moves from an ugly, cramped world to a beautiful, simple coupling with his wife, the act of writing in the café acting as the fulcrum between these two ends. It’s a pattern Hemingway uses again and again in his chapters, and it—along with his seemingly transparent prose, simple conflicts, curious voice, and crisp dialogue—moves the book along effortlessly yet artfully for the reader.
As a writer and teacher, I help my student writers look at this book not only for its obvious surface beauty and messages (such as to get out into the world to write and observe, to create short sketches about seemingly insignificant moments, to select people you have come to know and how you came to know them) but also for the writer’s devices, masterfully employed throughout, that they can use to tell the stories of their own lives.