Hemingway's Gossip

I just read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and I'm feeling a bit nauseous.

I'm generally of the pro-Hemingway camp; his style is original, and many of his stories do stay in one's head. His famously clipped sentences are readily parodied, to be sure, but they do produce a sense of drama if you are willing to go along. Unfortunately, the sentences work much less well in this memoir of writerly Paris in the 1920s, partly because most of the episodes in the book lack the strong sense of tension or anxiety Hemingway was able to achieve in his best fiction. A Moveable Feast is therefore best read for the Paris gossip, though it does have some moments of stylistic ambition.

Gertrude Stein fans and critics have a special hostility to A Moveable Feast because Hemingway says some mean-spirited things about Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Those were the sections I read in graduate school, in too much of a hurry to get a Gertrude Stein seminar paper together to actually read the rest of Hemingway's little book. It was enough for me at the time to note the hypocrisy in Hemingway's emulation of Stein's radical sentence design, in light of his ungracious (and homophobic) dismissal of her as a person.

There's a good deal of other interesting gossip to look for: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce, Picasso, and Sylvia Beach. Scott Fitzgerald comes across as nuts, but likeable in some measure. Ezra Pound is, improbably, a "saint." Wyndham Lewis is grotesque (Hemingway quotes Stein as referring to Lewis as "a measuring worm": he measures the great art he sees, and copies it badly). Ford comes across as a snob, and a liar. Joyce, Picasso, and Sylvia Beach come across as basically harmless, benevolent presences.

There is one section of the book, "Hunger was good discipline," which exemplifies Hemingway at his writerly best and worst. Here is what I think of as the best:

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry.

Perhaps he goes a little off the rails into uninteresting idiosyncrasy with the bit about Cezanne forgetting to eat, as opposed to being just flat-out broke and hungry. But the rest seems true. Hemingway is into intense mental states, in which one becomes other to oneself, but not in an ephemeral or feverish way. If anything, the difference is quantum (physics metaphor!); the altered state may be temporary, but it is static and describable. (Altered states are also especially important in For Whom The Bell Tolls, I think).

That for me is Hemingway at his best, at least as far as the rather slim pickings of A Moveable Feast go. He's at his worst at the end of the same section I quoted from above, when he poses the following sentence as a stand-alone paragraph:

All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head and until morning when I would start to work again.

Can anyone rescue this sentence, with its disparate and incompatible verb tenses? Can it be anything other than ugly and kind of ridiculous? Somehow it seems much worse than Hemingway's general use of parataxis, which can create a kind of rhythm, or the omission of punctuation, which creates immediacy. Both of those are evident in the first paragraph I quoted (see for instance the first sentence), and they do no harm.

[Cross-posted at The Valve]