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A Moveable Sunday

There’s something beautiful about spending several hours treasure-hunting at a used bookstore on a ‘false spring’ afternoon. In Burbank, California, on a particularly lazy Saturday, I discovered the largest dollar bookstore I’ve ever encountered, aptly named Dollar Bookstore. About the size of a Borders or Barnes & Noble, the dollar store had thousands of books shelved without any rhyme or reason. I picked up twenty bucks worth, including the complete works of Collette, and this gem by Hemingway. I have to admit that I haven’t read much Hemingway. During graduate school a fellow graduate student had such a love for all things Hemingway, including the “macho” stereotypes, that he’d frequently put down well-loved female writers, calling them inferior to what he perceived as Hemingway’s “emotional and masculine intensity.” It felt like such bullshit that I decided to hate Hemingway on principle, no matter what anyone said. I had read the requisite short stories in my undergrad years, and the all important “AP TEST” novel in high school, but never really got into Hemingway. Something about the tattered cover of A Moveable Feast caught my attention, however. I was curious.

A friend has recently been longing to go to Paris, and I’ve joined in this longing, searching out all things paris. Hemingway’s sketches promised ample discussion of his cafe haunts in the 20’s; somehow, I felt like perhaps in Hemingway’s nonfiction I might be able to get a sense of the true man. Whether I was able to or not is questionable considering the mild controversy surrounding Hemingway’s second wife’s editing of the manuscript, but still, after a three-hour read curled up in a Starbucks chair on Easter sunday, I had a teary-eyed response to the last few pages of the book, so lovely were they in the waning sunlight of the last Sunday of Spring Break that I forgot who and where I was for a bit:

When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully, and Mr. Bimby standing with her, blond and chunky and with winter cheeks [. . .]

I admit, after finishing the book, I was more interested than ever in Hemingway’s background and in his writing practice, especially since A Moveable Feast offers such an excellent blueprint for the life of a writer. Hemingway’s discipline for the daily grind of writing revealed many gems for would-be writers. For example, he says:

It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.

That’s certainly good advice. Hemingway also talks about the necessity of reading after writing, the importance of having no fixed engagements, the need for writers to engage in meaningful experience and to allow themselves to be open to new places, people, and activities, and the importance of truly living and truly loving–drinking, exploring, wandering, making love–all of these things build good writers.

I surprised myself by being less interested in Hemingway’s dealings with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, than I was in Hemingway’s reflections and observations about his life in Paris. His prose is bare, and when he does offer observation, his gaze often seems to fall on the most mundane images, and each of these images is steeped in nostalgia. The opening of the book notes that Hemingway worked on the sketches some time after his experiences in Paris, and this perspective does sentimentalize in a few places–but I won’t say that the sentimentality is unwelcome, because it comes with heartbreaking honesty as well.

Later I read that many of Hemingway’s family committed suicide, and that these suicides may have been linked to a genetic disease passed down the paternal line through his father. I found it difficult to read Hemingway’s discussion of Fitzgerald’s alcohol abuse, knowing the facts of Hemingway’s alcohol abuse in his later years. Perhaps it’s true that the faults we recognize in others are the ones that we, ourselves, have and struggle with? I don’t know, but the voice in this book is not the machismo, sexist, stereotyped Hemingway I was expecting. The book was alive and made me proud to be a writer, and embarrassed that I don’t work harder at the opportunity.