Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Book Review: A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wrote simply and beautifully and was an asshole.

In his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his time as a struggling artist in Paris in the 1920s. In his stark, almost childish style he offers up a rather detailed series of vignettes of his life and times there and they were wonderful. Some are poignantly sad, some are quite funny, and some are downright bitchy. All are staggeringly self-aggrandizing.

It is clear to me that as much as the world has loved Hem, no one could love Hem as much as Hem did. His best times were when he was alone, walking the deserted streets of the city. Or fishing, smoking. Or at the track, betting. Or skiing, and climbing. Hem was no team player. His worst times were when someone interrupted him. In many a scene he proudly recounts how he berated some idiot for even sitting at the same café where he worked. And there were plenty of idiots.

And so it was with great ambivalence that I motored through this little book because truly, he writes beautifully. There is complete clarity of message. No room for nuance, whatsoever. Which, if you think about it, only contributes to the arrogance: not a single word is hedged; without adjectives, nothing is modified. It was as I say it was. It is as I say it is. I do what I say I do.

In addition to the anecdotes of his friends and lifestyle (oysters, bookstores, cafes, banging models, skiing with the rich, talking about art with Gloria Steinem, and bopping around in a topless convertible with an effete and desperately drunk F. Scott Fitzgerald) he talks a great deal about writing. How he feels about it, how he did it, where he did it, why he did it. And it is in these passages that pretense and romanticism are finally shed. It makes them less sensational, but there is a palpable sense that he’s finally telling the truth.

The truth is a theme that comes up a great deal when he talks about writing. He feels that the truer you write, the better you write. So if truth is the essence of writing, and the truth is always accessible to you if you really look hard enough, then good writing will always be there.

Vaguely addressing writers block and why it’s simply never been a problem for him, he says: Whenever I am not sure where the next story will come from, I simply sit down and force myself to write one true sentence. Once that sentence is there, the rest will follow.

So I tried it. See above. He was right.

(To be fair to the man, I do understand from subsequent reading that his fourth wife, Mary, had a heavy hand in editing his nearly finished work going as far as to outright cut a lengthy apology to his first wife, Hadley. Perhaps Mary trimmed some of the humility too, but somehow I doubt it.)

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