In 1956, Ernest Hemingway was passing through Paris on his way home after an extended sojourn abroad. What started out as a sightseeing excursion in Africa with his wife (in 1954) turned into an extended convalescence in Italy after they both sustained serious injuries in two successive plane crashes. While stopping over in Paris, he was notified by the Ritz hotel that there were two steamer trunks of his that had been in its storage since 1928. Retrieving the trunks, Hemingway discovered a cache of forgotten manuscripts and notebooks from his early days as an American expat living and writing in Paris in the midst of the Génération Perdu—the post-war “Lost Generation.”
Hemingway saw potential for organizing the materials for publication as a memoir or biography. He may have been motivated to tell his own story after such close brushes with death in Africa. Or he may have been motivated to set the record straight after reading the premature obituaries that had been printed immediately following his plane crashes.
For the remainder of his life, Hemingway struggled to organize this memoir of his Paris years. Declining physical and mental health prevented him from completing the task. The resulting book, A Moveable Feast, was published posthumously in 1964 with editorial decisions left to Mary Hemingway and the Scribner team. This 2009 restored edition includes chapters and textual variations that were included in Hemingway’s original manuscripts. I highly recommend this book, and particularly this edition, to Hemingway fans, lovers of literary Modernism and all who have every dreamed of living in Paris. For you aspiring writers and literary connoiseurs, this book exemplifies the spare prose of Hemingway’s style, but where his fiction is usually devoid of reflection on the art of writing, this book offers readers a statement or manifesto of Hemingway’s literary ideals and standards. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’…Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about …and it was good and severe discipline.”
Hemingway lived in Paris between 1921 and 1928. He moved there with his first wife Hadley Richardson as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. At that time, Paris was a magnet for the avant-garde: Artists, writers and philosophers all in one place, cross pollinating each other’s work in a setting of bohemian vitality. American expatriates were attracted there in large numbers both by the intellectual climate and by the favorable exchange rate of dollars to francs.
74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine home to Hemingway and Hadley
When Hemingway took breaks from writing, he often walked in the Jardins du Luxembourg or visited Luxembourg palace which was then a museum where turned to Cezanne and Manet for inspiration
Living in the Latin Quarter with his wife and young son, Hemingway rubbed shoulders with many noteworthy artists and writers residing in the city. To name two, there was James Joyce and Pablo Picasso, but the list is quite long and impressive. Within a year or two, he had quite an extensive social network throughout the city. He emphasizes in the book his close and complicated relationships with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In particular, I enjoyed the fascinating and crazy episodes involving Fitzgerald, whose literary genius was inextricable from reckless living, alcoholism and a turbulent marriage. (Both Scott and Zelda struggled with addiction and mental illness).
28 Rue de Fleurus where Hemingway and Hadley were frequent guests of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas
For all the decades that separate us from the period described in A Moveable Feast (and, for those who are counting, it has been almost ten), Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris and its people are remarkably familiar and resonate with one’s experience of the city today. No doubt, some things have changed: For instance, I am fairly certain that there are no goat herders in the city today, whereas in Hemingway’s time they were a primary means of distributing fresh milk to residents of the city. That said, his insightful observations about the underlying culture and spirit of the city continue to be relevant today. Also his tight descriptions of places in Montmartre, Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter still sound modern and contemporary—and familiar. He tells of his favorite cafes for meeting people, his favorite cafes for avoiding people, his favorite foods and wines, regular walks on the quais of the Seine or in the Luxembourg gardens. By way of an example, I’ll leave you with a representative passage from the book:
“I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood. At the head of the Île de la Cité below the Pont Neuf where there was the statue of Henri Quatre, the island ended in a point like the sharp bow of a ship and there was a small park at the water’s edge with fine chestnut trees, some huge and spreading, and in the currents and back waters that the Seine made flowing past, there were excellent places to fish… With the fisherman and the life on the river…the great plain trees on some of the stone banks of the river, the elms and sometimes the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
Hemingway liked walking on the quais along the river Seine (This photo is of the Plane Tree lined quai at Ile St Louis)