A Moveable Feast Essay Topics

A Moveable Feast Summary

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A Moveable Feast is one of Nobel-Prize winning American writer Ernest Hemingway’s most renowned books. A memoir, published posthumously by his widow, Mary Hemingway, it was written in the 1950s, based on Hemingway’s journals from the 1920s. During this time, the writer lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and their young son, Jack. Hemingway struggled to get by as a journalist for a Canadian newspaper and also strike out as a writer of fiction. In the years after World War I, Paris had become a mecca for artists and intellectuals, many of whom who, like Hemingway, were expatriates.

A Moveable Feast’s title derives from the Roman Catholic term for a religious holiday that occurs on a different date each calendar each year, such as Easter Sunday. Relatedly, the structure of Hemingway’s memoir takes the form of 20 titled chapters, each of which stands alone and need not be read in chronological order. The stories themselves are from different periods in Hemingway’s life in Paris, and therefore, do not represent a linear approach to his experiences. Hemingway described the lasting effect of his time in Paris to a friend as a “moveable feast.”

“A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel” sets the scene of Hemingway’s life in Paris, where the weather is cold, and his days are marked by journeys to a café through crowded, dirty streets. Cafés, however, are his sanctuaries, where he can write as he drinks and people-watches. “Miss Stein Instructs” lays out Hemingway’s famous saying that “one true sentence” is all that is required to create a good story. Here, the author reminisces about his fellow writer and mentor Gertrude Stein, a friend of the Hemingways who had an art studio, with whom he enjoys frank discussions about his writing as well as about life. In “Une Génération Perdue” or “A Lost Generation,” Hemingway credits this phrase, used to this day to describe the young people who fought in World War I, to Gertrude Stein.

“Shakespeare and Company” describes a famous bookstore in Paris that is particularly cozy during the winter. The owner, Sylvia Beach, allows Hemingway to borrow books from the store’s rental library for free. In “People of the Seine,” the author details his walks along the River Seine, during which he frequents the small bookstores along its banks and stops to watch the fishermen. “A False Spring” explores the bliss of the Parisian spring. Hemingway decides to take his wife to a horse race, and the couple enjoys a dinner out and night on the town together. The author describes a feeling of hunger, however, that lingers in him late into the night.

In “The End of an Avocation,” Hemingway becomes less interested in horse racing and more in the Parisian bicycle races, which he learns about over lunch with his friend Mike Ward. The author describes looking at art in Parisian museums on an empty stomach in “Hunger Was Good Discipline.” Hemingway has less money now that he has quit his journalism position to work on and sell his stories, which he has done to some success. Nonetheless, he buys an extravagant lunch, where he thinks and writes and realizes he must write a novel. “Ford Madox Ford and the Devil’s Disciple” contains Hemingway’s description of a meeting at the Lilas café with the English writer Ford Madox Ford, which provides a glimpse into the complex social dynamics of the expatriate literary circle in Paris.

In “Birth of a New School,” Hemingway shares the annoyance of being interrupted by a heckler in a café, which breaks the mood of his writing routine. He writes of his pleasure, by contrast, in sometimes working at home, early in the morning, near his young son and cat. The author goes on to tell of an evening with a Bulgarian painter friend in “With Pascin at the Dome.” The artist is accompanied by a pair of models, and he speaks openly of sexuality. “Ezra Pound and his Bel Esprit,” or chapter twelve, portrays Hemingway’s friendship with the American poet Ezra Pound, to whom he teaches boxing in Pound’s studio. Pound has started a literary club called the Bel Esprit, which Hemingway joins.

In “A Strange Enough Ending,” Hemingway overhears a disturbing disagreement in Gertrude Stein’s apartment, which leads him to end their close friendship, except to maintain appearances. “The Man Who Was Marked for Death” is about a meeting between Hemingway and the Irish poet Ezra Walsh, who says Hemingway is “marked for Life” and promises him a literary prize. Hemingway expresses his appreciation for Russian literature alongside his impressions of the American poet Evan Shipman in “Evan Shipman at the Lilas.” Hemingway then attempts to bring the dying American poet Ralph Cheever Dunning opium in a cold-cream jar in “An Agent of Evil,” but Dunning only throws empty milk bottles at him.

A Moveable Feast’s penultimate three chapters—“Scott Fitzgerald,” “Hawks Do Not Share,” and “A Matter of Measurements”—make up Hemingway’s famous portrait of the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. The two are heavy drinkers, and Hemingway joins them in travels in France and Spain, where he learns firsthand of Zelda’s poor mental health and its negative effects on Fitzgerald. During this time, Hemingway reads Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, and he is also writing his own novel, The Sun Also Rises.

The last chapter, “There is Never Any End to Paris,” takes place during a family vacation in the Austrian Alps. Hemingway meets the American journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, with whom he begins an affair. This marks the start of a new era in his life in Paris—which necessarily brings this memoir, which documents the now-previous era, to a close. Hemingway’s preface to this book states that it may be read as fiction if the reader so desires and that fiction sometimes sheds light on the truth. Fact or fiction, A Moveable Feast is a tantalizing portrait of 1920s Paris, offering firsthand insight into Hemingway’s development as a writer.

Richard Louth is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, founding Director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and creator of the New Orleans Writing Marathon—where
writers, like Hemingway, move across the city writing about their lives and observations in cafes, pubs, and other similar locations.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil. (A Moveable Feast, 6)

There’s only one book that I read every year and it is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his book about being an expatriate writer in 1920’s Paris.I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, since there are so many problems associated with the book besides the fact that is full of sentences like the one above. (Haughty, assertive sentences consciously omitting the comma before the “and” that connects independent clauses—there are at least four of these on the first page of the book alone, and they are a trademark of Hemingway’s often poorly imitated style.)

More serious problems range from it being by Hemingway (the macho man that Woody Allen burlesqued in Midnight in Paris and that some postmodern readers love to hate just because of his public image) to its textual problems (allegedly generated from old journals mysteriously unearthed after WWII in the cellar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, published posthumously in 1964 after being patched together and given a title by his fourth wife, then re-published in a less polished “Restored Edition” under the supervision of grandson Sean in 2010), to its factual inaccuracies (such as the false assertion that Fitzgerald didn’t offer suggestions on the first draft of A Sun Also Rises) and general vindictiveness towards old associates and competitors (such as Gertrude Stein, John dos Passos, and Fitzgerald).  Whew!  And we haven’t even touched on the problem yet of what genre it is: How can it be nonfiction memoir when the author himself says in the Preface that “this book may be regarded as fiction”? (Hemingway was afraid of libel, but still, much of the book is fiction if we define fiction as “invention” or “the opposite of true fact”).

Given it problems, why do I return to this book each year?

It’s not because I teach it, though I do.

I’ve assigned it in a graduate seminar about William Faulkner and his contemporaries and more recently as the first book in a new creative nonfiction course entitled “Autobiography and Life Writing.”  Students in that course, unencumbered with questions of literary history, genre, and academic ideologies responded positively to the book, I think, because they were primarily interested in the story a man told about his life and how he told that story—that is, the quality of the writing.

And I think that is why I return to it each year myself.  I’ll uncork a bottle of Bordeaux, as I’m doing right now to review it, get comfortable in my reading chair, pretend I’ve never read it before, and turn to the first page of my cracked, old Bantam edition where a photo of a bridge crossing the Seine graces the cover, then read the first sentence: “Then there was the bad weather” (3).  And I’m there.  The “Then” always tricks me in.  Still does.  “When?” I ask.  “What just happened before?”  And I can’t put the book down.  I’m not a teacher or a writer as I read this book for pleasure (I’ll be these later), but I’m simply there, with him, hanging a damp coat and hat in a warm café, shaving the end of a pencil with a penknife, and feeling what it is like to be an unknown writer writing a story he can’t help but write.  Eating oysters when I’m done, then looking around the room and spotting someone who intrigues me, whose story I’d like to know.  I usually read the entire book in one sitting, and the reason I can do this is not just because I’m familiar with the story, but because the writing itself is so good.

What makes it so good, especially given the problems I’ve mentioned above?

Is it just because I’ve fallen in love with Hemingway’s mythical world of Paris (as Woody Allen’s Owen Wilson character does)?  Well, if I weren’t a writer, I’d have to say yes.  Who doesn’t want to read about a past brimming with life, flowing with food and wine and famous people, that always seems to come back to a city you love and a companion who loves you?  Who can put down a book about a character learning his craft, growing up, discovering a new world inside and outside himself, and journeying from innocence to experience right before your eyes?  There’s no reason not to love the book for the story it tells and the Paris it creates, whether they are as fictional or as nonfictional.  I suspect that is why it became so popular in the first place, and one reason I’ll continue to read A Moveable Feast with simple pleasure each year.

But I also get another kind of pleasure from it—one that kicks in after each reading, when I cork the bottle of wine (or what little is left of it), take out my own pen, and ask where its true beauty lies and what it can teach me as a teacher and writer.  When I begin to work at it, looking at it closely as a work of art (just as Hemingway himself says on page 69 he studied the Cezannes at the museum in Paris’s Luxemboug gardens), the book takes on new hues, new meanings.

Study the first page of the first chapter (“A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel”).  I’ll have my nonfiction students copy that page in their journals, then ask them to “mark it up,” circling words that stand out or repeat, marking patterns, shifts, and surprises in the prose.  Just as Hemingway began to notice the architectonic patterns of Cezanne’s brushstrokes, mine notice the repetition of “and” and of rain and wind and weather and drunkenness, and how these all are used to create the “sadness of the city” (4) that Hemingway seeks refuge from in this café and in his writing.  A closer look at the whole chapter then demonstrates larger, subtler patterns—how it moves from an ugly, cramped world to a beautiful, simple coupling with his wife, the act of writing in the café acting as the fulcrum between these two ends.  It’s a pattern Hemingway uses again and again in his chapters, and it—along with his seemingly transparent prose, simple conflicts, curious voice, and crisp dialogue—moves the book along effortlessly yet artfully for the reader.

As a writer and teacher, I help my student writers look at this book not only for its obvious surface beauty and messages (such as to get out into the world to write and observe, to create short sketches about seemingly insignificant moments, to select people you have come to know and how you came to know them) but also for the writer’s devices, masterfully employed throughout, that they can use to tell the stories of their own lives.

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