I’ve never understood why Oak Parkers hold Ernest Hemingway at arms’ length, but gradually, over the last 20 years, I have become a fan. What put me over the top was his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his life among the Generation Perdue in 1920s Paris. If you saw Woody Allen’s wonderful new film, Midnight in Paris, you got a taste of it. Judging by the film, Allen is more than a little familiar with Hemingway’s Feast.
A Moveable Feast was written in the last years of Hem’s life (evidently he didn’t like his given name) and published posthumously. I saw where he pecked a good part of it at his home, Finca Vigia, outside Havana, Cuba. He used one of the extra bedrooms and had the typewriter on a shelf about stomach high. He stood while he typed, having wrecked his body in two plane crashes in Africa within days of each other just a year or two earlier.
It was all downhill for Ernest Hemingway after the Nobel Prize. Maybe that’s why he returned, in his clear, clean, sharp-eyed prose, to those exciting years in Paris when he was just learning his craft.
He writes a lot about writing in A Moveable Feast, which is a delight — and quite revealing.
A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
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 this pencil.
Doesn’t exactly sound like a man at the end of his creative rope.
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. … It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
Hemingway judged severely but also generously. He uses the words “good” and “wonderful” with great frequency. People often disappoint and fail to measure up to his high bar. To be fair, he also applies that bar to himself. Maybe the same self-loathing that made him hate the name Ernest drove him to seek experiences that were pure and clean and good and true. Usually he finds them away from the maddening crowds, often while observing the changing light of Paris. But when all else (and all others) failed him, there was always “the work.”
I would have to work hard tomorrow. Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now. … It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. … I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
His journalism also reads wonderfully, even today (there’s a sample on page 35), and you can hear more in the annual Hemingway Foundation Birthday Lecture tomorrow night at the Oak Park Art Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., at 7 p.m. But Hemingway took a chance and gave up journalism in the ’20s.
I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. … I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. … All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again.
Alas, he was not able to stay good in his head to the end and he left us too soon.
But for the better part of four decades, oh my, Ernest Hemingway could write.