Though often containing gorgeous prose, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast
has a clear agenda. The book treats Hemingway’s life in Paris from 1921 to 1926. Although the book clearly is autobiographical, in the Preface, Hemingway, after explaining that several items were left out of his memoir, then suggests, rather coyly, that “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction” and adds, “But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” In essence, Hemingway wants it both ways: the book may be regarded as either fact or fiction. Although there is no reason for readers to read the work as fiction, Hemingway’s suggestion serves two ends. First, Hemingway introduces the idea that the book could be viewed as a novel, an idea that echoes the famous challenge he issued when he wrote The Green Hills of Africa
where he ponders whether a work of nonfiction, if written truly enough, could compete with a work of the imagination. Aligning the work with fiction promotes its artistry; in addition, Hemingway’s Preface serves to justify his carefully reconstructed version of his early life.
However, Hemingway’s book does not seem like fiction because of what he leaves out, but rather for what he puts in. And, what Hemingway adds is gossip. Rather than the often vain, self-centered, and troubled person that Hemingway was, he presents a smoothed over, patient, loyal, and often loving version of himself. His first wife, Hadley, whom Hemingway unceremoniously dumped for Pauline Pfeiffer, is promoted to near sainthood. Ford Madox Ford is presented as hygienically challenged and a fool, Ezra Pound is a saint, and Ernest Walsh is a posturing liar. Yet, Hemingway presents his gossip artfully, even reluctantly. At one point, in reference to rumors about a writing award in which Ernest Walsh was involved, Hemingway disassociates himself from gossip and even attempts to admonish the reader: “If the news [about the writing award:] was passed around by gossip or rumor, or if it was a matter of personal confidence, cannot be said. Let us hope and believe always that it was completely honorable in every way” (125).
Despite Hemingway’s stated qualms about avoiding gossip and upholding honor, he shows no restraint in his portraits of Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stein is introduced early in the memoir, and then destroyed completely in a later chapter entitled, “A Strange Enough Ending.” Tellingly, Hemingway begins the chapter by observing, “There is not much future in men being friends with great women…and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers” (117). Significantly, Hemingway diminishes Stein’s writing ability by relegating her to a general group of “ambitious women writers.” Hemingway recounts visiting Stein’s house; as he waits for her, he overhears an intimate conversation. Hemingway writes, “…I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever.
Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy” (118). Hemingway takes pains to describe how he quietly exits and asks the maidservant to say she had met him in the courtyard, and that he had never entered the house. Nevertheless, Hemingway’s willingness to write the incident and include a private conversation belies the gentlemanly behavior he tries to portray. The intimate conversation Hemingway provides—word-for-word—is designed to make Stein look foolish and weak. Hemingway uses gossip to assert his superiority.
Despite the many pages devoted to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway’s portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald serves as the book’s dramatic core. By the time Hemingway meets Fitzgerald, he has already published This Side of Paradise
and had just completed The Great Gatsby
. In contrast, Hemingway has not yet been able to write a novel and worries whether he can. When he reads The Great Gatsby
, its genius stuns him. Hemingway’s artful vignette of Fitzgerald serves to cut him down to size. Throughout the book, Hemingway carefully constructs his writing persona and implies that the attributes he displays—discipline, diligence, and attention to craft—are the qualities of a true writer. In contrast, Hemingway introduces his portrait of Fitzgerald by implicitly comparing talent with craft.
Like Fitzgerald’s physique and character, which Hemingway dissects piece-by-piece, Fitzgerald’s writing ability is portrayed as weak and suspect. Fitzgerald, Hemingway implies, has not earned his ability to write; even worse, Fitzgerald only recognizes his talent after it is gone: “Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.” Hemingway implies that Fitzgerald’s writing was not an intellectual, crafted ability, but more a matter of luck. Fitzgerald was given a portion of talent, but he had not worked for it, and it contrasts with the sturdy and true writing that emerges from craft.
Not content with rendering Fitzgerald’s writing ability suspect, Hemingway continues to dissect Fitzgerald, taking direct aim at his manhood. Like a good gossip, Hemingway provides salacious details. However, Hemingway packages his gossip carefully. Hemingway writes, artfully: “Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have the mouth of a beauty…The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.”
In the following chapter, “A Matter of Measurements,” Hemingway assuages the insecurity Fitzgerald feels because of a comment Zelda has made by taking Fitzgerald into the men’s room, inspecting him, and pronouncing the size of his penis normal. The content could hardly be more intimate and sensational. Hemingway performs verbal surgery throughout A Moveable Feast
, and despite the book’s artistry, Hemingway spares almost no one his scathing memoir.