For The Someday Book

Book Review: A Moveable Feast

Posted on: February 2, 2018

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, New York: Bantam Books, 1964, 209 pp.

Moveable FeastWe’re going to Paris! For the first time! So, I wanted to read a book about Paris. A classic. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is just that. Besides, we already had a old copy (same as the one pictured) in our home library, probably acquired for 50¢ at some used book sale over the years.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir about the community of artists and writers, especially American writers, who lived in the Left Bank in the 1920s, named by Gertrude Stein as the Lost Generation. Hemingway tells tales of kindness, scandal, self-doubt, support, enmity and friendship among Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other notable writers, most of whom were just beginning their careers and struggling at the time. The revelations would have been scandalous when they were published, but they are not especially so today.

The stories take place in the cafes and clubs around Paris, and feature Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop as the central point of connection for all the young artists. Beach tended to the writers like a protective mother, served as their post office and lender of books, food and emergency cash.

This book is about a Paris that no longer exists, a Paris of the past in which suffering and struggle have been romanticized by memory. Even by the time Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast in the 1950s, the war had forever destroyed the Paris he knew. It was published after his death, with yet another layer of remembrance. Reading it now, Paris is in yet another incarnation.  These layers of wistful memory seem to be part of Parisian identity itself. It is a city most often viewed through the lens of memory, as most people visit or even live there only for a short season of their lives. Only a few are permanent residents, and they likely see the city differently than all who freeze it with a particular age and stage of their own life.

Hemingway captures this sensibility in the title line:

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.

One of my favorite aspects of A Moveable Feast were Hemingway’s regular reflections on writing and his own creative process. He wrote in a hotel room office most days, separate from his home, and discusses the feeling of pride he had in leaving a day’s work knowing he had produced something good. He also made it his practice to always end the day knowing where he was going the next day, rather than somewhere stuck. However, when he did find himself at a loss,

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 you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. (12)

When he would get stuck, he would often move to writing in a cafe. I share this affinity for writing in cafes. However, there is always the danger that someone will try to visit with you, not respecting the fact that, even if you appear to be staring into space, you are actually in the process of writing. He captured this “true sentence” of my experience.

Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. (92)

From now on, I will think of these surprise visitors as an infestation. (Even though sometimes God works in these interruptions, I’ll admit.)

In the final chapter, he writes a brutal critique about the arrival of “the rich” ruining a small Alpine town that he and his wife have frequented. They also ruin him and his writing. Not by their criticism, but by the appeal of their lives of ease and their ready praise.

That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvelous discovery. I even read aloud the part of the novel that I had rewritten, which is about as low as a writer can get. … When they said, “It’s great, Ernest. Truly it’s great. You cannot know the thing it has,” I wagged my tail in pleasure and plunged into the fiesta concept of life to see if I could not bring some fine attractive stick back, instead of thinking, “If these bastards like it, what is wrong with it?” That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional although, if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them. (207)

This captured sometime especially true for me about ministry and preaching. Sometimes, we can be lulled into a “fiesta concept of life,” where we take it easy and enjoy ourselves, relishing praise and accolades for our words. But this rarely produces our best work as preachers, and usually obscures our faults from our own view. In fact, at our professional best, we question those sermons that are the most popular, wondering if we have indeed done justice to the challenge of the Gospel.

A Moveable Feast definitely made me even more eager to see Paris. As a lover of literature, I enjoyed reading Hemingway’s tales of the personalities and backstories of literary lights before they were so known. I was delighted to find gems about writing (and preaching) to carry forward with me.

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2 Responses to "Book Review: A Moveable Feast"

I loved this book. Because I love Paris. Thanks for this.

Jennifer, I’m so excited for you about going to Paris. You may already have this place in mind but you might want to visit the Pere Lachaise Cemetery where so many of the authors and artists are buried including Gertrude Stein. Also, the most famous ice cream place is Berthillon Glacier. The three of you are going to have a marvelous time! Enjoy every minute!

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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