The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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June 30, 2011

'There is never any end to Paris'

Most of these memoirs were written thirty years later, following a second world war. Distance lent enchantment. Looked at from postwar Europe, impoverished and split by political disputes, it was too easy for [Sylvia] Beach, [Henry] Miller, and in particular Hemingway to believe the sun had been warmer back then, the conversation wittier, the drinks more potent, the women more beautiful, the city cleaner, more honest, more innocent. ‘When spring came,’ wrote Hemingway, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people, and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.’ ...

Stirring stuff — but alas, mostly invented.
from The Most Beautiful Walk in the World:
A Pedestrian in Paris
, by John Baxter

I read Ernest Hemingway (I think) in high school {The Old Man and the Sea} and in college {American studies major, literature concentration}, but there was nothing in him that ever made me want to read more. Except for Paris. I borrowed a copy of A Moveable Feast from my parents’ bookshelves about five years ago, and still have it, and I was thinking about Paris in July, and then Dolce Bellezza and A Book Sanctuary nvited us to read it with them.

On the one hand, it’s absolutely wonderful, a joy to read. It’s the early 1920s, and Hemingway is young, newly married to Hadley, the father of a young son, and he has just given up journalism to focus on his writing. He does all the things you’d want him to do: walks through Paris {it made me want to get out a map and see exactly where he was, and whether I had been there}, and to the Luxembourg Gardens when he doesn’t have money for food, writes and drinks in the Brasserie Lipp and the Closerie des Lilas {I did go there, but it was for Henry}, visits Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound, and meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. As long as it’s been since I read Hemingway, I expected the spare style, but I wasn’t expecting to laugh.

He was a critic already so I asked him if he would have a drink, and he accepted.
‘Hem,’ he said, and I knew he was a critic now since, in conversation, they put your name at the beginning of a sentence rather than at the end, ‘I have to tell you I find your work just a little too stark.’
‘Too bad,’ I said.
‘Hem it’s too stripped, too lean.’
‘Bad luck.’
‘Hem too stark, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy.’
I felt the rabbit’s foot in my pocket guiltily. ‘I’ll try to fatten it up a little.’
‘Mind, I don’t want it obese.’
‘Hal,’ I said, practicing speaking like a critic, ‘I’ll avoid that as long as I can.’
I loved so many of the stories, such as the one about Hemingway working with Ezra Pound on a campaign to raise money so that T.S. Eliot could ‘get out of the bank’ and write {‘…in my dreams I had pictured him as coming, perhaps, to live in the small Greek temple and that maybe I could go with Ezra when we would drop in to crown him with laurel. I knew where there was fine laurel that I could gather, riding out on my bicycle to get it, and I thought we could crown him any time he felt lonesome…’}. The humor becomes darker at the end, and the writing more poignant, when he drives back from Lyon with F. Scott Fitzgerald {'They would find an inexpensive villa for us and this time he would not drink and it would be like the old good days and we would swim and be healthy and brown and have one aperitif before lunch and one before dinner.'}. Then it slips away, when Ernest and Hadley go skiing in Austria and things begin to change.

But on the other, you almost have to read the book with a little bit of questioning, even if you don’t know exactly why. In part, just because it’s a memoir, written thirty or forty years after the days it describes. I read a little about the book {but only a little} before I read it, enough to know that it was published posthumously {did Hemingway really write it from notebooks he found in 1956, in a trunk he had left behind at the Ritz?} and Mary Hemingway (his fourth wife and widow) has been criticized for some of her editing .

Ernest becomes much less earnest at the end, when he seems to disown his part in the ‘nightmare winter’ and ‘murderous summer’ that leads (off camera) to an affair and the breakup of his marriage. {‘During our last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again … It was that year that the rich showed up.’} Then I saw another article, where a Hemingway scholar noted his ‘viciousness’ toward Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Ford, yes, definitely (he clearly despises him), but I didn’t sense that with the other two. Did I miss something?  Was the humor (especially on the drive back from Lyon) not as fond as I thought? Did I just want to stay wandering happily in Paris?

Even with all this, I loved this book, and it has only made me hungry to learn more. Thank you, Bellezza and Tracey, for inviting us to read it with you.

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Frances said...

It has been a long time since I read this one, and I really wanted to join in but am caught up (completely) with Your Face Tomorrow. But I do have all of July to think all things Parisian right?

Love the things you have pulled out here. In regard to the snark aimed at Fitzgerald, it is there but more subtle than with Ford. Just envy I think and not the crazy homophobic charges some have leveled at it.

Audrey said...

Oh, Frances, I knew you would know. Envy is the undercurrent there...I just read it again. The portrayal is humorous (the thermometer), and a little fond (Scott tries but fails), but a little more mean-spirited than admiring.

Tracey said...

I love your Ernest becomes less earnest comment! Great review and I totally agree about the feeling of maybe questioning the reality of everything described in the book. I thought some of his ways of summing things up were a little too idealistic and perhaps a little rose tinted 30 years down the line - along with the question of did he intend it to read exactly as we ended up reading it.

Thanks so much for joining us in this little read - The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is high on my wishlist now!

GirlsWannaRead said...

I love A Moveable Feast, too. If you don't mind a fictional version you should try The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It relates those Paris years from Hadley's perspective. For a more scholarly, but quite readable, take on those years try Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch.

Ellie said...

We always remember things being better don't we? Looking forward to following you in July :)

Ann said...

'The Old Man and the Sea' was one of my GCE texts and I haven't read anything since, but this makes me think I should at least go back and explore his life a bit. It isn't book I knew about, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

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