Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

“ If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1960

Image: Abe Books

When you re-read A Moveable Feast today one can feel both the stress Hemingway was feeling about Cuba’s future, and the strange comfort of going back and writing about his Paris of the 1920s (thanks in part to a suitcase full of Hemingway’s papers found in the basement of the Paris Ritz Hotel), and the friends and the drinking, and the writing in the good cafes, and his and Hadley’s love of ‘Bumby’ (their son John), and the journalism and the travel, and the weather: good and bad. The writing of A Moveable Feast brought it all back to a man who realised that time was at a premium, as the following from A Moveable Feast suggests:

When there were the three of us instead of just the two, it was the cold and the weather that finally drove us out of Paris in the winter time. Alone there was no problem when you got used to it. I could always go to a café to write and could work all morning over a café crème while the waiters cleaned and swept out the café and it gradually grew warmer. My wife could go to work at the piano in a cold place and with enough sweaters keep warm playing and come home to nurse Bumby. It was wrong to take a baby to a café in the winter though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored. There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big, loving cat named F. Puss.

Feather Puss, to give the cat his full name, only did the baby sitting when Ernest and Hadley had to be out and the ever watchful landlady needed to go shopping, with the cat on full alert until her return.

Financially times were both good but often tough (especially when Hadley’s trust fund had been found to be badly handled) and Hemingway’s mention of Hadley playing the piano may be a reference to her possibly giving piano lessons (she was an excellent pianist), or even playing with the five piece band that worked in a bar close to the Hemingway’s apartment. All things were necessary when Hemingway was concentrating more on writing stories than following leads for newspaper articles. Hadley seldom complained.

Many have written about the Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s, but none better then Hemingway himself:

When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter, there was good wood for sale at the wood and coal place across our street, and there were braziers outside of many of the good cafes so that you could keep warm on the terraces. Our own apartment was warm and cheerful. We burned boulets which were molded, egg-shaped lumps of coal dust, on the wood fire, and on the streets the winter light was beautiful.

Although written in 1959/60, Hemingway was able to recreate the feeling of those Paris days, and the quality of the writing too: conjuring up a genuine spirit of place that reminds me of his short story, ‘A Clean, Wel-Lighted Place’:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference…

Of course Paris is where Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Dingo Bar, which was a bit of a disaster to say the least. They agreed to meet again a few days later for lunch at the Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway said how sorry he was that the booze had hit Scott the way it had at The Dingo, and that maybe he had drunk it too fast while they had all been talking and having such a good time?

Fitzgerald professed to not having a clue what Hemingway was talking about, in fact denied he’d been drunk at all in The Dingo, that he’d simply become tired of the British Hemingway had been talking to and went home. Hemingway explained that he’d not been talking to any British there, other than the barman; but Fitzgerald was having none of it, at which point Hemingway gave up, and as he reveals in A Moveable Feast

“ … he asked me why I liked this café and I told him about it in the old days and he began to try to like too and we sat there, me liking it and he trying to like it, and he asked questions and told me about writers and publishers and agents and critics and George Horace Lorimer, and the gossip and economics of being a successful writer, and he was cynical and funny and very jolly and charming and endearing, even if you were careful about anyone becoming endearing. He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his new book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of the past books…”

Then, over lunch, Fitzgerald told Hemingway how he and Zelda had recently attempted to motor down to the South of France, but had had to abandon their small Renault car in Lyon due to the bad weather and would Hemingway travel with him down to Lyon by train and drive the car back to Paris with him.

And because the lunch was going so well, with Fitzgerald not at all badly affected by the two large whiskies, and because it was such beautiful spring weather, with the countryside at its best, Hemingway readily agreed and arranged to meet Fitzgerald the following morning at the Gare de Lyon to catch the express south.

It had been a wonderful lunch, with Hemingway’s memory of their first meeting at The Dingo Bar little more than a bad dream.

Hemingway was at the station very early, waiting outside the main entrance for Scott, who had agreed to bring the tickets. But with each passing minute Hemingway became increasingly concerned, and with just five minutes to go before the train pulled out he bought a second-class ticket and boarded.

As Hemingway mentions in A Moveable Feast he had, in those days, a very quick temper and would probably have belted Fitzgerald in the mouth had he turned-up at that moment. But Hemingway’s notorious temper soon calmed as he watched the beautiful countryside and ate a splendid lunch — and drank a bottle of St- Émilion — in the dining car, even though he couldn’t really afford it.

When Hemingway arrived in Lyon he wired the Fitzgerald apartment in Paris explaining which hotel he was staying in, and pondered on two facts: one, that he’d never known of a grown man missing a train before, and two, that he was probably going to learn a great deal about F. Scott Fitzgerald on this trip, assuming the novelist ever showed up.

Toward evening Hemingway received a wire saying that Fitzgerald had certainly left Paris for Lyon, but no one, including Zelda (who was in bed with a headache) knew which hotel he was heading for. Hemingway checked, but no one had seen him arrive in Lyon. Hemingway contacted all the good and expensive hotels (Fitzgerald would not stay in a bad or cheap hotel) but to no avail. There was nothing for it but to find a cheap restaurant before retiring for a good night’s sleep.

Before the restaurant came a bar, where Hemingway drank an apéritif, read the papers, and met an old man who ate fire and bent coins with his toothless gums for a living. The two eventually ate in a cheap Algerian restaurant where the old man told Hemingway many stories of his life as a fire-eater, bemoaning the fact that young fire-eaters were ruining his business with trickery and that he would probably have to give fire-eating up soon. He didn’t know how he might make a living if he did. Hemingway paid for the meal and wished the old man well and hoped they might meet again. Hemingway then made his way back to the three star hotel he could not really afford, began to read from A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev — a book he’d borrowed from Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co — before falling asleep half way through chapter two.

The following morning Scott Fitzgerald was waiting for Hemingway in the hotel’s reception.

Fitzgerald had refused to come up to Hemingway’s hotel room while the latter was shaving preferring to meet him in reception. Perhaps Fitzgerald felt guilty about missing the train to Lyon and wanted to meet somewhere where Hemingway couldn’t easily vent his fury over what Hemingway no doubt saw as very sloppy manners. So F. Scott Fitzgerald settled down with a newspaper as Ernest Hemingway took a very leisurely shave, making Fitzgerald wait.

When Hemingway at last shook Fitzgerald’s hand in the hotel’s reception the author of The Great Gatsby said how sorry he was over the mix-up, and that had he known which hotel Hemingway was staying in everything would have been simple. Hemingway explained that he’d wired and phoned the Fitzgerald’s apartment in Paris leaving a message saying which hotel he was staying in, but Fitzgerald insisted he never received that message, and that Zelda had been dreadfully unwell anyway and if a message had been left she had probably forgotten.

Hemingway said that that was all right, that it really didn’t matter and that he’d enjoyed his first stay for a couple of years in a smart hotel, and that he’d been able to catch-up on some Turgenev, so everything was fine and not to worry, and that maybe they should find a small café where they could have a good breakfast before locating the car and making their way back to Paris.

Fitzgerald thought breakfast was a fine idea but insisted they have it in the hotel. Hemingway said it would be cheaper and quicker in a good café. But Fitzgerald was insistent, and as Hemingway describes:

“ It was a big American breakfast with ham and eggs and it was very good. But by the time we had ordered it, waited for it, eaten it, and waited to pay for it, close to an hour had been lost.”

And it was while Fitzgerald was paying the bill that he thought it would be a good idea if the hotel made them up a picnic lunch. Hemingway tried to argue Fitzgerald out of the idea, saying they could get food on the way, and a good bottle of Mâcon from Mâcon, or they might stop at any number of restaurants on the way back to Paris. But Fitzgerald reminded Hemingway that the latter had recently told him that Lyon chicken was the best in the world. So Hemingway gave in and the hotel made them up a superb lunch that took another hour and cost five times what it would have cost to buy food and wine on the way.

As two hours had already been wasted Hemingway suggested they have a drink in the hotel’s bar. Fitzgerald said he was not a morning drinker and asked if Hemingway was. Hemingway told him it depended on how he felt and that if he felt he needed a drink he’d have one, no matter what the time of day. Did Fitzgerald want a drink in the hotel’s bar or not? Fitzgerald said yes, a good drink would set them up for the journey, so that had whiskies and Perrier water in the bar.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald then argued over who should pay Hemingway’s hotel bill, with Fitzgerald insisting he pay. But in the end Hemingway paid for his room and the breakfasts and the drinks in the bar. He knew his credit was good with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co, and that he didn’t want to be beholden to Fitzgerald, not now, not ever.

After a great deal of searching, Fitzgerald and Hemingway found the garage where Fitzgerald had left the car.

Hemingway was amazed to find the car’s roof was missing, and writes in A Moveable Feast that:

“ The top had been damaged in unloading the car in Marseilles, or it had been damaged in Marseilles in some manner and Zelda had ordered it cut away and refused to have it replaced. His wife hated car tops, Scott told me, and without the top they had driven as far as Lyon where they were halted by the rain. The car was in fair shape otherwise and Scott paid the bill after disputing several charges for washing, greasing, and for adding two litres of oil. The garage man explained to me that the car needed new piston rings and had evidently been run without sufficient oil and water. He showed me how it had heated up and burned the paint off the motor. He said if I could persuade Monsieur to have a ring job done in Paris, the car, which was a good little car, would be able to give the service it was built for.”

The garage owner then tried to persuade Fitzgerald to have a new roof put on, pointing out that neither of them had waterproofs and that it looked like it might rain. Hemingway suggested to Fitzgerald that it might be a good idea to at least buy waterproofs, but to no avail. Fitzgerald was now keen to get back to Paris.

So the intrepid duo squeezed themselves into the tiny Renault, and after about an hour they were stopped by torrential rain forcing them into the nearest café. In all, that first afternoon, they were stopped ten times by rain, and as Hemingway points out in his memoir if they had had waterproofs they could have motored on pleasantly, instead of parking under trees every few miles.

During one spell under a roadside tree the two writers ate the lunch the hotel in Lyon had prepared for them, which included:

“…an excellent truffled roast chicken, delicious bread and white Mâcon wine and Scott was very happy when we drank the white Mâconnais at each of our stops.”

In the town of Mâcon Hemingway bought four more bottles of wine which they drank as they needed, and Hemingway was delighted to see how much Fitzgerald was excited by drinking from the bottle, as “…a girl might be excited by going swimming for the first time without a bathing suit.

But toward the end of the afternoon Fitzgerald had begun to worry about his health (he was a dreadful hypochondriac), telling Hemingway two gruesome stories about friends of his who had died of congestion of the lungs recently through getting wet.

An argument then broke out between the two of them when Hemingway said that his friends had probably suffered from pneumonia. Fitzgerald then told Hemingway that he, Hemingway, new nothing about medicine even if his father had been a doctor, and that congestion of the lungs was a malady indigenous to Europe, and that Hemingway’s father, and therefore Hemingway, only knew about American diseases. Hemingway reminded Fitzgerald that his father had studied medicine in Europe as well as America. But Fitzgerald was having none of it, explaining that congestion of the lungs was recently new to Europe and consequently Hemingway’s father could not have studied the disease when he was in Europe back in the 19th century. Hemingway then went on to explain that doctors from around the world exchanged knowledge, which meant that most doctors were familiar with most diseases and that Fitzgerald should stop talking and worrying and drink some more wine which would make him feel better.

And it did for a while until Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to head for the nearest big town because he felt a fever and delirium coming on, which were the classic signs of European congestion of lungs, and that they must hurry.

“ How long before we reach a town?” asked Fitzgerald.

“ About twenty-five minutes.”

Hemingway was losing his patience.

It then began to rain heavily and Hemingway pulled the car into a small roadside café where the two men talked about death — and drank far too much wine — with Fitzgerald becoming more and more depressed, especially when Hemingway — in an attempt to put things in perspective — told Fitzgerald about the death and destruction he’d seen in Italy during the Great War, and during the Greco-Turkish war, which Hemingway had covered as a correspondent. It didn’t help.

Eventually they reached the town of Châlon-sur-Saôn (some 50 kilometers north of Lyon), booked into a small hotel where Fitzgerald went straight to bed complaining of a high temperature.

Hemingway (always the practical one) sent their clothes to be dried, ordered two whisky and hot lemonades, took Fitzgerald pulse and temperature — which were normal — and ordered a meal for himself.

Fitzgerald then asked the Oak Parker to promise him that he would look after Zelda and their daughter Scotty when he, Fitzgerald, died in the night. Hemingway told him to drink his whisky and hot lemonade and to stop being ridiculous because he wasn’t going to die that night, and that he didn’t have a temperature and therefore wasn’t going to get congestion of the lungs, European or any other sort of congestion.

A fierce argument arose with Hemingway wishing he wasn’t wasting so much time with this lunatic writer and that he’d never agreed to go to Lyon in the first place.

But Fitzgerald began to calm down, and Hemingway knew he couldn’t stay angry with Fitzgerald for long.

Hemingway also knew that Fitzgerald knew that drunks, in those days, often died of pneumonia, and that Fitzgerald knew he was a drunk — even if it only took a couple of drinks. Hemingway knew it was the fear of that which had brought on the stupidity and the arguments.

Later on that night F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted that Ernest Hemingway take his temperature again. Hemingway assured that Fitzgerald’s temperature was fine to the touch.

“ To the touch, what good is that?”

“ And your pulse is normal.”

“ I want you to get a thermometer and take my temperature properly.”

Hemingway tried to argue Fitzgerald out of the idea, but Fitzgerald told Hemingway he couldn’t possibly be his friend if he wouldn’t find a thermometer and take his temperature.

Hemingway writes:

“ I rang for the waiter. He didn’t come and I rang again and then went down [in his pajamas] the hallway to look for him. Scott was lying with his eyes closed, breathing slowly and carefully and, with his waxy color and his perfect features, he looked like a little dead crusader. I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life. I was very tired of Scott and of this silly comedy, but I found the waiter and gave him money to buy a thermometer and a tube of aspirin, and ordered two citron pressés and two double whiskies. I tried to order a bottle of whisky but they would only sell it by the drink.”

When Hemingway returned to the room he explained to Fitzgerald that he’d sent out for a thermometer. He then felt Fitzgerald’s forehead, which was cold, but not as cold as the tomb, as Hemingway describes it. Fitzgerald then argued that sending out for a thermometer was not the same as bringing one.

Hemingway describes how you could not be angry with Fitzgerald as you could not be angry with someone who was crazy. But Hemingway was becoming more and more angry with himself for having become involved in the whole silliness.

Waiting for the waiter both men fell into silence with Hemingway finishing of the Mâcon they’d bought earlier, and reading the newspaper, especially the crime stories which, as Hemingway explains in A Moveable Feast, in France, read like serials, and that you will have needed to have read the first instalment to know what is going on because, unlike in US papers, they don’t give summaries. He then goes on to write that only place to read such serials is at a café table in Paris, and not sitting on the bed of a small hotel fifty kilometers north of Lyon with the rain still lashing down outside as you waited for a waiter to bring a thermometer for a hypochondriac novelist.

When the waiter arrived with the drinks he explained that the pharmacy was closed so he could not purchase a thermometer. Fitzgerald then asked Hemingway if he had explained to the waiter the urgency of the situation and had he tipped the waiter enough because waiters, especially French waiters, only worked for tips, and big tips because, in his opinion, they were all rotten.

Hemingway said he had and knew that Fitzgerald had no understanding of waiters, or anyone else who had to work for a living, and wanted to tell him about how a waiter at the Closerie des Lilas had to cut his moustache off when that restaurant opened an American Bar, and that he would have been sacked had he not done so, and how the waiters had become firm friends of Hemingway, and the likes of his friend Evan Shipman, and how those waiters had loaned Hemingway money in the early days, money they could not really afford, and that you didn’t abuse waiters, or taxi drivers as Fitzgerald did. Hemingway realised that Fitzgerald was a dreadful snob and a pain in the backside, which is where he wanted to stick the thermometer if he could get one.

As Hemingway read his newspaper Fitzgerald turned on him, as Hemingway recalls in A Moveable Feast:

“ You’re a cold one, aren’t you?”

“ What do you mean, Scott?”

“ You can sit there and read that dirty French rag of a paper and it doesn’t mean a thing to you that I am dying.”

“ Do you want me to call a doctor?”

“ No. I don’t want a dirty French provincial doctor.”

“ What do you want?”

“ I want my temperature taken. Then I want my clothes dried and for us to get on an express train for Paris and to go to the American hospital at Neuilly.”

“ Our clothes won’t be dry until morning and there aren’t any express trains…”

With that there was a knock on the door. The waiter had returned with a thermometer — a large bath thermometer with a wooden back and, as Hemingway describes it, “…enough metal to sink it in the bath.”

Hemingway shook the thermometer down “professionally”. Fitzgerald then asked where that kind of thermometer went. Hemingway said that it went under the arm and put it under his own arm. Fitzgerald told him to remove it as it might affect his own reading. Hemingway then shook it down again and put it under Fitzgerald’s arm where he left it for four minutes.

“ Aren’t you supposed to leave for just one minute?”

“ No,” replied Hemingway, explaining that it was a big thermometer and that you had to multiply by four, hoping Fitzgerald would believe him.

“ Oh. So what’s the reading?”

“ Thirty-seven and six-tenths.”

“ Is that normal?”

“ Yes.”

“ Are you sure?”

“ Sure.”

Fitzgerald insisted Hemingway try it on himself, which he did with the same result. Fitzgerald asked Hemingway how he felt. Fine, said Hemingway. Well, we can be happy it cleared up so quickly, replied Fitzgerald, reminding Hemingway that he’d always excellent recuperative powers. He then insisted on ‘phoning Zelda.

After that Fitzgerald brightened and told Hemingway how he’d met Zelda and that this was their first night of separation since they had married.

When their clothes were dry and pressed they both went down for dinner with Fitzgerald talking all the while about his novels and where the plots had come from, and he kept on talking the following day as they drove to Paris.

When they finally reached Paris Fitzgerald gave Hemingway the manuscript of his new book to read, which Hemingway loved and knew that no matter how badly Scott behaved, which was really a sickness, that Hemingway must always try and be a good friend.

Ernest, Hadley and ‘Bumby’, John Hemingway. Image: JFK Library

In 1999 Michael Palin’s book Hemingway Adventure was published and is not, as Palin points out, a transcript of his television series of the same name, but is a book that “…has a life of its own.” And it does. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Hemingway to read it.

Like me Palin came to Hemingway as a teenager, as he describes in his introduction to the book…

When I first heard of Ernest Hemingway I was a teenager living in Sheffield, an uncompromising industrial city without a hint of glamour, until recently, when the demise of its industry became the subject of a film called The Full Monty. A few days before my thirteenth birthday I was sent to a boarding school at Shrewsbury. When my time came to take my ‘A’ level examination in English, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were the most, indeed only, modern works offered on the course. My teacher recommended them and, as a taster, I took them with me on the annual summer holiday to Southwold.

As the grey North Sea rolled on to the wind-swept Suffolk beach I trudged through the unfamiliar prose, but at night I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The sense of place, the intensity of smell and sound, the sheer physical sensation of being taken somewhere else was fresh and powerful and exhilarating. I would lie in bed and follow retreating armies down dusty Italian roads and feel the heat of Spanish squares and stare up into the wide skies of Castile and sense the cold at night in a pine forest.

Hemingway’s world was close and uncomfortable and itchy and sweaty and frequently exhausting. It was, I felt, the real thing. To experience it would require the ability to absorb a little punishment, it would demand an open mind and a degree of recklessness. But it could and should be done. This stuff was too good to be wasted on exams, I must be bold and fearless and go out there and do it for myself.

Unfortunately, in the late 1950s there wasn’t much call for provincial English schoolboys to carry mortars up Spanish hillsides, and though I had a goldfish I hadn’t fought for seven hours to land it. So boldness and fearlessness were put on hold and I packed the books into the back of the car and looked out at the Newark Bypass as my father drove us back to Sheffield, holidays over for another year.

But something was different. After reading Hemingway I felt I’d grown up a little. Lost my literary virginity. Books would never be quite the same again.

Image: amazon

My own introduction to Hemingway came in 1960 in a cottage in North Wales, which had a well stocked bookcase that included a pre-war edition of The Fifth Column & The First Forty-Nine Stories. It was the red and cream cover that attracted me first, and the castle-like pattern of Hemingway’s name, which promised much, and gave so much more, including the aforementioned, ‘A Clean, Well Lighted Place’, and ‘Cat In The Rain’, two of the finest stories ever written.

Unlike Palin, who gave up Hemingway for the next thirty years, I read everything he’d ever written, and every biography that came out, and more importantly the conversations with military historian and novelist, Charles Whiting, who had met and observed the man.

So where does Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, fit in to all this?

Palin’s book is far superior to some of the large biographies; but in true Monty Python style Palin often tries desperately to suggest he isn’t really that bothered about his subject’s life — that it was all a bit too macho and messy for him — until he really gets caught up in writing about him, as this passage about Hemingway’s life in Paris in the 1920s suggests…

I try to ignore the February drizzle as I walk, early on a Saturday morning, along one of the streets, huddled in by apartment buildings, that runs up the hill from Notre Dame and the River Seine to the once poor and anonymous area which was the Hemingway’s first permanent address in Paris.

Thanks to A Moveable Feast we know quite a bit about their home at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine. We know it was on the third floor, and was what they called a cold-water flat, with a squat toilet outside on the landing. This was not connected to a main drainage system and the sewage had to be pumped into a horse-drawn tank and taken away…[and] There are no cobbles any more on the rue du Cardinal Lemoine, or goats, as far as I can see, but the tall, plain murky white facade of Number 74 is still there. It’s no longer anonymous. A sign hangs above a ground floor doorway announcing the presence of ‘Agence de Voyages’. There is a plaque on the wall marking Hemingway’s presence here, though it was not put up until 1994, thirty-three years after his death.

Image: flickr

We’re admitted by a stout old concierge with wispy hair, a floral apron and a tired old dog. She says her parents knew the Hemingways, and produces a photo. Then she indicates a steep corkscrew of a staircase, on which we, like Ernest and Hadley before us, toil up to the third floor…

Palin is also invited into the Hemingway apartment which, back in 1999, was inhabited by another American who was getting a bit fed up with Hemingway pilgrims knocking on his door, although he was happy to see Palin.

I was in Paris about the same time as Palin, and did the Hemingway trail that included Shakespeare & Co, which had become an antiques shop specialising in Chinese porcelain. Gertrude Stein’s apartment house looked very expensive. And when I came to the Hemingway apartment it was enough just to look and read again from A Moveable Feast.

When Hemingway returned to Cuba from Spain in 1959, and began writing The Dangerous Summer (initially a 10,000 word article for Life, that quickly turned into a 100,000 word book. The writing knocked the stuffing out of Hemingway and he put the manuscript of A Moveable Feast to one side, not to return to it until the following year. We have to happy, very happy, that he did. A year later he was dead.

A Moveable Feast was published in 1964 thanks to Mary Welsh Hemingway.

Image: The Toronto Star

Bibliography:

Ernest Hemingway — A Moveable Feast (Jonathan Cape, London, 1964, then Arrow Paperback, London, 2004); Michael Palin — The Hemingway Adventure (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2009)…

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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