Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Moveable Feast

One of my favorite reads this year has been Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. This book has been on my work desk for several weeks now and every time my colleague and friend Fang Yih sees it, he throws it into the dustbin. He is one of those Hemingway haters. "If he had to write such condensed and pared down prose, why didn't he try poetry?" That's his main grouse against Hemingway. I understand the nature of his complaint and smile away while retrieving the copy from the dustbin. "Perhaps, this is the only good book he ever wrote," Fang Yih admits grudgingly. He is a Pynchonian.

I had read some of Hemingway's stories earlier in the year: I had liked his Nick Adam stories. I haven't paid any serious attention to his novels yet. I had loved The Old Man and the Sea when I had read it some years ago. Nabokov liked his story, The Killers, more than anything else he ever wrote.

Yet, there are many who don't like Hemingway. One of my editor friends, after reading some of my stories that I wrote this year, said one or two stories in my collection read like journalism. Hemingway, in this book, says the same about some of Chekov's stories. So, in hindsight, I take my friend's comment as a compliment. Every story one writes can't be great. Some stories do get shaped up like journalism, even though the attempt is to avoid that effect.

Hemingway in Paris

Hemingway had started writing this book in 1957 and the book was published posthumously in 1964. The book records Hemingway's years in Paris during the 1920s. Then, he was starting up as a young and struggling writer; to begin with, he was stationed in Paris as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. At that time, Braque, Picasso, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald were the shining stars in Paris. Hemingway got to meet and befriend some of these legendary figures. Some chapters in this book tell stories of these legends.

One of the funniest chapters in the book is about Hemingway's travel with Fitzgerald. It is an amazing story in itself, and reveals the character of both the personalities.

In the beginning of the book, when Hemingway meets Gertrude Stein, he comes back with the feeling that he had to be cured of two things: his youth and his love for his wife. He believed work could cure anything and he worked hard to cure himself of these two things. Stein also advised him to buy pictures instead of clothes (to put the money to better use).

Hemingway was poor but he and his wife never thought of themselves as poor. They never accepted it ("We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other). But he knew in his heart that "the one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers."

During their meetings, Stein and Hemingway often discussed writers and writing. Stein advised him not to read Huxley. "Huxley is a dead man. Can't you see he is dead?" she told him. "You should only read what is truly good and what is frankly bad." Huxley wrote inflated trash, she said.

Hemingway said he liked D H Lawrence, especially his short story, The Prussian Officer. Stein said she couldn't read his novels. "He's impossible, pathetic, and preposterous"--that was her judgment. "He writes like a sick man." She admired Sherwood Andersen, never as a writer, but as a person--a warm and kind person.

Books, hunger, writing

In those days, Hemingway had no money to buy books. He borrowed books from Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore of Sylvia Beach. Some of the books he mentions borrowing from her are Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches, D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (perhaps), and Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky.

In "Hunger was good discipline", Hemingway says all the paintings (in a museum) were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. "Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it," he writes.

When Hemingway quit journalism, getting money was a problem. "When I stopped doing newspaper work I was sure the stories were going to be published. But every one I sent out came back."

One day Hemingway tells his woes to Sylvia. He feels ashamed about talking over this matter. "Don't you know all writers ever talk about is their troubles?" Sylvia tells him to comfort him.

Hemingway talks about his stories, Up in Michigan (Stein thought it was inaccrochable), and Out of Season. The real end of the latter story was that the old man in it hangs himself. Hemingway had omitted that ending based on his new theory, that "you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and that the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood".

In a chapter on Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway does not portray a rosy picture of the writer (he had been through very bad domestic troubles). The two are drinking and a poet named Belloc passes by. Ford cuts him. "Tell me why one cuts people," Hemingway asks. "A gentleman," Ford explained,"will always cut a cad."

Ezra Pound

"Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people," Hemingway writes. He associated with Pound's movement called Bel Esprit to raise money to free T S Eliot from his bank job so that he could write poetry. Eliot got freed but the movement died soon after.

Pound and Hemingway naturally liked to discuss writers. Hemingway had read Gogol, Tungenev, Tolstoi and Chekov. He had been advised to read Katherine Mansfield in Toronto but after reading Chekov, he felt her writing to be artificial and near-beer. "It was better to drink water. But Chekov was not water except for the clarity." Hemingway was puzzled by Dostoyevsky who wrote so "unbelievably badly" and yet made you feel so deeply. Dostoyevsky seemed to be anti- mot juste. Ezra said he never read the "Rooshians". "Keep to the French," he advised. "You've plenty to learn there."

The next chapter that follows is how he broke up his friendship with Stein. The rift led him to conclude that "there is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is even less future with truly ambitious women writers." The break left him so shaken that he could not make friends again truly, neither in his heart nor in his head. "When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst," he says.

The last chapters are on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They are full of insight. But I would like to close this review with a quote from Hem's poet friend, Evan Shipman, who truly did not care if his poems were ever published--he felt that it should remain a mystery.

"We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem," he once told Hemingway. "The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance."

It sounds so true even hundred years later--now in our time when we are living almost naked lives. If the multitude of talentless poets and writers heeded this advice, we would be spared the unbearable trash that is thrown at us each year. It forces us to look back and reach for the gems of the past to survive the brazen assaults. The only difference, between then and now, is not that of the problem of sustenance but of vanity.


4 comments:

monideepa sahu said...

really enjoyed this post. so much information and so well presented. Unlike your friend, I like Papa Hemingway precisely for that immense power of understatement.

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