“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
This sentence is the preface to “A Moveable Feast”, a slim volume of Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his beginning years as a young writer in Paris between 1921 and 1925 and published in 1964 after his death.
In keeping with his renowned brevity, the vignettes and anecdotes in this work capture the environment and mood of American writers in Paris between the two world wars, or the “lost generation” as Gertrude Stein termed them. This famous phrase, which was subsequently taken up to describe the expatriate literary circle, was a remark Stein made in a conversation about the repair troubles she had with her Ford Model T. The garage shop owner had berated his mechanic, who had served in the war, as being incompetent and said to him, “You are all a genération perdue.”
“That’s all you are. That’s what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really?” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.”
“Was the young mechanic drunk?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“The boy’s patron was probably drunk by 11 o’clock in the the morning,” I said. That’s why he makes such lovely phrases.”
“Don’t argue with me Hemingway,” Miss Stein said. “You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”
Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been.
I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been and will always do my best to serve her. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels. When I got home, I said to my wife, “Gertrude is nice, anyway.”
“But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.”
Thus the phrase made its inelegant entrance into the lore of American literature and stayed. But Gertrude Stein did not always talk rot. The most valuable instruction she gave to Hemingway was not to write anything that is inaccrochable (unhangable). “That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.”
Hemingway imbibed copiously, wrote with great discipline and went to the race track as assiduously when money was flush. He was friends with Ezra Pound, whom he deemed a noble and generous and disinterested writer who admitted to have never read the “Rooshians” (Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoi) and advised Hemingway to stick with the French. “You’ve got a lot to learn from the French.” Hemingway thought that until he read Stendahl’s “The Chartreuse de Parme,” he had never read of war except in Tolstoi, and that wonderful account on Waterloo was an accidental piece in a very dull book. Tolstoi’s “War and Peace,” on the other hand, “made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles.”
For a student of literature, it is sometimes vindicating to hear the greats’ criticisms of each other’s works. Gertrude Stein thought Aldous Huxley’s writing was “inflated trash, written by a dead, dead man.” Hemingway himself couldn’t read D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” even though he liked “Sons and Lovers”. Stein dismissed Lawrence with contempt: “He’s impossible. He’s pathetic and preposterous. He writes like a sick man.”
Hemingway recalls in detail the streets and places and watering holes and eateries he frequented as well as his impressions of his contemporaries. Ford Maddox Ford who was unkempt and had bad breath, the poor poet Evan Shipman who didn’t dress warmly enough for late fall. F. Scott Fitzgerald was between handsome and pretty, in love with Zelda and discombobulated by her. She once asked Hemingway, “Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?” It was then that everyone realized that [Fitzgerald] would not write anything more that was good (after The Great Gatsby) until after he knew that Zelda was insane.
For a mere 126 pages, this work is a gem of fond recollections of people and places that Hemingway assembles like actors on a stage and gives readers front row seats.
“There was never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed… Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”