Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Moveable Feast (1964/2009)

In 1975, I might have liked A Moveable Feast best of all the books by Ernest Hemingway I read. But among people I knew who disliked him it was singled out for additional revilement for its various self-aggrandizing qualities. So I wasn't sure what to expect many years later, and after disappointments with revisits to two of his more highly regarded novels. As it turns out, my interest in memoir trumped my growing suspicions that Ernest Hemingway is a charlatan, and I enjoyed it as much I had the first time. It's Hemingway's usual wooden-block alternations between description and dialogue, and his usual stoic nonsense, but it's also gossipy and fun, sometimes malicious (notably his acid treatment of Ford Madox Ford, which is cruel). On that score, Hemingway's description alone of a conversation he overheard between Gertrude Stein and, presumably, Alice B. Toklas, makes the book. His memories of F. Scott Fitzgerald are good too, providing views new for me into Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Hemingway's admiration for The Great Gatsby is so sincere and unqualified—he also praises Tender Is the Night, but I have the impression he was almost in awe of Gatsby. I like how Hemingway judges Fitzgerald as a writer, which in turn makes him willing to put himself through the agonies he describes, trying to be Fitzgerald's friend (and remembering always that the first presumption with Hemingway should probably include acknowledging the usual, and obvious, self-aggrandizement, which is real). I also like everything about Ezra Pound here, starting with his very appearance at all. Mostly he comes across as a kind of well-dressed, well-mannered beatnik, which is interesting. Even more interesting, Hemingway omits any discussion at all of Pound's World War II adventures on the side of the Italian Fascists and the consequences suffered.

On the other hand, noting the multiple dates of publication (and also that Ernest Hemingway died in 1961), I think it has to be said that A Moveable Feast is now officially a mess. Hemingway never felt he had it done before he died, and the first edition was the result of his fourth wife Mary's compositing among the fragments. The latest version from 2009, "The Restored Edition," was composited by Sean Hemingway, Ernest's grandson by his second wife, Pauline; among other things, Sean and his father (another of Ernest's sons) felt Pauline was not treated fairly in the first edition. In fact, the memoir mostly features Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, though there is some discussion (briefer and more elliptical in "The Restored Edition") of their breakup and of Pauline. I'm not about to get into the middle of such internecine conflict. Both editions are essentially the same book, and they are both very good. There might be more material in the latter edition, and I particularly liked the Fragments section appended at the end, where you get a nice feel for how Hemingway worked, like watching multiple takes of the same scene from a movie one after the other. The best way to read A Moveable Feast now just might be to read them both (though note: the earlier one appears to be a little harder to acquire, which is probably only going to get worse).

In case it's not at the library.

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