Regarded as a classic, here is my review of the Great American Writer's memoir which was published after Hemingway's death in the 1960s.
What drew me to reading the memoir?
Without a doubt it was because of his reputation. Ernest Hemingway is regarded as a literary giant and a master of the short story format. I wanted to know more about him and find out what it is that I could learn from him.
I was also sold on the fact that his memoir is set in Paris. I would’ve read it for that reason alone.
A third reason was that I wanted to learn how Ernest Hemingway lived this thing we call 'the writing life'. As I’ve said, writing is both a craft and a lifestyle. And how did Hemingway live his?
I must add a caveat here. I have to confess that a while back I had tried reading a collection of Hemingway’s short stories. But they didn’t grab me. I just didn’t get the stories and I had to put the book aside. I felt like a literary failure. And so when it came to reading his memoir, I anticipated that the experience might be similar to reading his short stories. However, have no fear. I found the stories, enchanting, delightful and inspiring, and I found his writing style easy and engaging.
What hooked me in the first chapter?
The opening line certainly drew me in. Hemingway starts with this sentence: "Then there was the bad weather". It’s a strong sentence that made me feel that I was part of an ongoing conversation. I wanted to read the next line.
Hemingway then goes on to describe his arrondisement in early 1920s Paris and his local drunkard-filled café. My interest was particularly piqued when, in the fourth paragraph, he describes his route from his regular writing haunt to “a good café that (he) knew on the Place St. Michel.” I actually googled mapped his route to see if it was an area I had visited on one of my trips to Paris. I wanted to envision his walk.
It was at the café on the Place St. Michel that I became well and truly hooked! Hemingway spoke directly to one of the things I said that I was hoping to learn – how did he live the writing life? Settled at his table, Hemingway describes how he ordered his café au lait, took out his notebook and a pencil and started to write. To read Hemingway describe his process of writing is to read a literary piece. It is simple, attainable, visual and good.
In this first chapter, because Hemingway spoke to my heart and to my dreams, I knew that I would read the rest of his memoir. In my dreams, I too am a writer in Paris walking the sodden winter leave-strewn streets to my favorite café to write. I too am partaking of my café au lait as I scribble my thoughts on to the page. And I too am celebrating finishing my story by ordering a dozen oysters and a demi-carafe of white wine.
Hemingway’s memoir was no longer about him but about me. And that transition is a key quality of memoir writing – to write in such a way that your reader sees herself in your story.
What surprised me about the book?
I would have to say that it is this: how little his wife is mentioned. Having read Paula McCain’s The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, I was keen to hear about their marriage from Hemingway himself. However, Hadley is a peripheral and marginal figure in Hemingway's memoir.
A Moveable Feast covers five years of Hemingway’s life. Its focus is his writing life and his interaction with the literary sect living in Paris in the early 1920s, ex-pats like, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Scott Fitzgerald. Its focus is not any of his marriages, his life growing up in Michigan, his father’s suicide, his great adventures, or his struggle with depression and alcoholism. No, he writes mostly about being a struggling, emerging writer in Paris rubbing shoulders with the literary giants of his day and just a little about being in love with his wife, Hadley. As Hemingway writes, “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
What didn’t I like about the book?
I can’t say that there was anything I didn’t like. However, there was a chapter that puzzled me at first and which I didn’t see the artistry in until I reread it – more than once. Before I tell you about it, I need to give you some idea as to the structure of the memoir. Each chapter is a sketch. A sketch is similar to a short story. It is shorter than a short story and contains little, if any, plot.
Now within those 20 sketches, there is one sketch that tripped me up. The chapter is called Birth of a New School and I didn’t care for, what I found to be, its initial obscurity. In this chapter, Hemingway is approached by someone while he is writing in a café and who interrupts his flow of writing. Irritated by the interruption, Hemingway shows his displeasure with extreme rudeness.
At my first read, I didn’t quite get the context or who the character is. It left me puzzled. The dialogue suggests that he was a fellow writer wanting to connect and rub shoulders with Hemingway, just as Hemingway did with his ex-pat literary group. This much I do know, Hemingway didn’t care for this person or for being interrupted, because he immediately replies with an off-the-chart insult. The dialogue continues to showcase Hemingway’s temper and that he was regarded by some as “cruel and heartless and conceited”. I got so caught up in the string of insults that, at first, I missed the nuances of the story.
Don’t gloss over the titles of each chapter. They give insight and context to each sketch. So in reviewing the title Birth of a New School I realized that Hemingway is likely becoming better known as a writer, and that there is a new school of young writers in Paris looking to be mentored by him. I missed that on my first read.
It is a great chapter. I just didn’t like having to reread it in order to understand what was going on. Which was reminiscent of my experience of reading Hemingway's short stories.
Which key ingredient of memoir writing stood out the most for me?
It has to be the use of sketch story as the format for his memoir. The unique thing about memoir is that you can write using almost any format whether it be creative non-fiction, letters, vignettes, a how-to book, a cook book, and in Hemingway's case, a collection of sketches. How you are going to deliver what you want to say is as important as what you are going to say. Consequently, your content will direct your format and your format will dictate your content.
This is evident in A Moveable Feast.
I’m not sure which came first but in Hemingway's memoir, his format and content reflect each other. Hemingway chose the format of sketch story to tell about his life and, essentially, he chose a sketch-amount-of-time in his life, a short five year period in his twenties, to write about.
What did I learn? How has it added to my life?
I learnt how Hemingway lived his writing life and what I would like to emulate, such as writing committedly and daily, and not emulate, such as imbibing too many glasses of rum St. James and carafes of dry white wine.
I also learnt about Hemingway’s actual writing process. To the extent that I intend rereading the memoir and pulling out the nuggets he shares about his writing process. That blog is coming soon.
This memoir has earned its status as a masterpiece. It's one to add to your personal library. You'll want to regularly take it off your shelf in order to learn how to write. Read it to learn how Hemingway uses strong sentences to start his chapters. How he builds intrigue and uses dialogue. How he can say something and nothing. And what he has to say about the process of writing.
It’s a classic. I highly recommend it.
Have you read my memoir review on Born a Crime by Trevor Noah?
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