November 30, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingRemembrancesUncategorized

A Moveable Funeral

Sales of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast spiked in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. The media has framed it as a book that captures the dream of Paris, its bohemian rhythms, its appeal to the sensual, the utterly sentient in us. There was a time in my life when I read that book over and over, alternating only with the Collected Essays of James Baldwin, and the first couple personal essay collections of Jonathan Ames. While Feast is certainly a celebration of what makes Paris Paris, it is also a book of mourning, written by an older Hemingway, living toward his impending self-inflicted death. In my view, it is a book of mourning as much as anything else.

Each person, place, moment celebrated seems veiled by a deep sadness. Hemingway’s profound praise of F. Scott Fitzgerald the writer, for instance, arrives only after many pages negatively portraying Fitzgerald the person. The move is effective, because it turns the praise into a punch, an unexpected flash of true humility from the narrator: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend. He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew. But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not. If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.” When he meets “Evan Shipman at the Lilas,” the conversation is nothing memorable, but his description of the poet hints at the decay, the sense of inexorable loss that attends even, or even especially, the sweetest of nostalgic memories: “There was no one there I knew and I went outside onto the terrace and found Evan Shipman waiting. He was a fine poet and he knew and cared about horses, writing and painting. He rose and I saw him tall and pale and thin, his worn and wrinkled grey suit, his fingers stained darker than his hair, his nails dirty and his loving, deprecatory smile that he held tightly not to show his bad teeth.” Something about Hemingway’s noticing those dirty nails, those hidden teeth, stays with me, forms a core in the painful underside of the book as I read it.

The most painful moments, of course, are those where blissful, wooden conversations take place between he and his first wife, Hadley. In a technical sense, it’s the least interesting dialogue I’ve read in Hemingway; they’re just talking about how great it’s going to be to take a trip together. But as you feel the ease in the exchange, and you realize that they were never this easy again after this, you realize it’s the most devastating dialogue he ever wrote. And you know these conversations never actually happened, but that he probably has hallucinated them in a way that captures mythically the love he felt, or wanted to feel, if only later, for her. The heart of a man who cheats sometimes cannot grasp what he has, but imagines that he grasps very precisely what he has lost, and that the loss is incalculable. He always has nothing; he has always just lost everything; the only way he can have something again is to cheat again, and lose it all again, but it is the first loss that abides and animates every other one that follows.

An actual loss in the book (I haven’t read the restored edition, but in the 1996 edition with the black and white cover, this episode appears) occurs when Hadley tries to surprise him by bringing his in-progress book to him in Lausanne so that he can work on it while they’re away. Her suitcase containing all of his work is stolen at the Gare de Lyon, and thus nearly all of his fiction is lost, as she had packed “the originals, the typescripts and the carbons.” There is a great hole in the narrative where Hemingway will not reveal what he did in response to Hadley’s blunder: “I was sure she could not have brought the carbons too and I hired someone to cover for me on my newspaper job, I was making good money then at journalism, and took the train for Paris. It was true all right and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.” As tragic as this is for the young writer, he repeats again and again that it was “a good thing” that his first novel was lost; just below the surface of his words is the freight, the realization that the only real loss that matters in this entire book of loss is the loss of his first wife Hadley, who loved him, and who “cried and cried and cried and could not tell me” what had happened. He “had never seen anyone hurt by a thing other than death or unbearable suffering except Hadley when she told me about the things being gone.”

The mourning that I sense in the book, I’m sure, is not unconnected to my own ongoing process of reverse culture shock when I first read it, as I had just returned from a semester in Spain, which included a week-long excursion to the City of Light. But even beyond that, there is a deep sadness in the book, which I imagine resonates with people who snapped up every last copy from Amazon France in the past couple of weeks. The first story Hemingway writes after losing everything is called “Out of Season.” He says it was a simple story, and in the final edits he simplified it further by omitting “the real ending” where “the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” The story is a parallel for Feast, a book written on the eve of suicide, published only after his death. Feast is a book buoyed up by its omissions; it certainly made me feel more than I understood. And, as in “Out of Season,” it is the death of the old man by his own hand that is omitted at the end. Thus we are left with a glorious document of life lived as we wish it could be, a city that is never-ending, a falling in love with people and books in a swirl of wine and sweat and paint and words again and again. We celebrate the flourishes of pleasure in the book, but are comforted most deeply, whether we know it or not, by its darkness, its sadness, its ever-unfinished mourning not only of lives lost, but of the fleetingness of life itself, the evanescence of–especially, selfishly–our own lives.