Tuesday, July 08, 2014

An Ephemeral Feast

There is a chapter in A Moveable Feast in which F. Scott Fitzgerald invites Ernest Hemingway to lunch and tells him, over a cherry tart:
"You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda... Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
The title of the chapter is "A Matter of Measurements," and what Fitzgerald wants to know - truly - is if he has a small penis, like Zelda says.

And this, my friends, is exactly why I don't like to know too much beforehand about the books I read - because they spoil the fun of being surprised by a scene like this. I read this exchange with my eyes and mouth wide-open in stunned amazement and amusement. 

Oh my gosh, Zelda told Scott he had a small penis!
Oh my gosh, Fitzgerald told Hemingway he had a small penis!

To tell him 'truly' about his measurement, Hemingway leads the author of The Great Gatsby to the men's room and checks out his goods.

After giving him an inspection he pronounces Fitzgerald "perfectly fine," adding that the only thing wrong with him is that he's married to Zelda.

"Forget what Zelda said. Zelda is crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you. … Zelda just wants to destroy you,” Hemingway says.
Fitzgerald is unconvinced, so Papa Hemingway walks him around the Louvre to size-up the naked statues. 

I don't happen to know what male nude sculptures the Louvre displayed in the 1920s when Hemingway and Fitzgerald went on their beefcake tour, but if I could go back to any moment in history, I would opt to go back to this moment, when these two literary giants went walking around the Louvre to size-up what the ancient Greek and Roman antiquities were packin.'

That's right. I'd chose this moment over dinosaurs, the dawn of life, Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, pyramids, Roman gladiators, all of it.

The possibility that these two novelists were roaming around discussing Fitzgerald's "measurements" is so fantastic and otherworldly that it's nearly magical.

And if tidbits like this exist in a brief book about Hemingway's first years in Paris with his first wife, then what similarly amazing stories are buried in other lesser-known memoirs?

It's too rich to imagine.

We will all have to read very single memoir ever written, examine every scratched-up notebook and decipher every penciled book margin lest we miss some marvelous story like this.

Zelda and F. Scott, 1919, via

But anyway, back to A Moveable Feast.

Published posthumously in 1964, it is Hemingway's memoir of when he lived in Paris in the early to mid-1920s with his first wife, Hadley. 

He's in his early 20s in the book. He is young, he is in love and he is experimenting with his craft.

The Paris expatriate luminaries are all here too, in all their strange glory: Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Hemingway's interactions with Fitzgerald are marvels of insight and also possible jealousy. He paints him as a drunk who can't hold his liquor, who pines for Zelda and who overall behaves strangely. But there are some tender moments here too.

Hemingway on reading The Great Gatsby for the first time:

"When I had finished the book [The Great Gatsby] I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how preposterously 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. …   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."
I'm not sure if that last statement resonates because it is such a harsh indictment of Zelda or if it's because Hemingway, in his look back at those early years, feels genuine sympathy for Fitzgerald.

(Hemingway is writing this memoir 40-years after the fact, likely remembering that The Great Gatsby sold poorly and received mixed reviews when it was published. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing his book was a failure. It's revival and popularity didn't happen until after World War II.) (Fun/sad fact for cocktail party conversations: Fitzgerald's funeral was attended by only about 30 people.)

A Moveable Feast is filled with all kinds of wistful, sad retrospection like this.

Hemingway tells us: ”… this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” 

Ernest and Hadley, 1922, via

Looking back on his first marriage 40 years later, Hemingway paints his second wife, Pauline, as a homewrecker who set out after him by first befriending his wife Hadley. He blames Pauline almost entirely for his failed marriage, and he is writing about it four decades later with such guilt and sorrow that you can't help but feel bad for the man.

"Then, instead of two of them and their child, there are three of them. First it is wonderful and fun and it goes on that way for a while… You love both and you lie and you hate it and it destroys you… Everything is split inside of you and you love two people now instead of one.

"...When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the stadium, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."
Death over love for anyone but Hadley. Damn Ernest, you poor bastard.

But remember, Hemingway had four wives, each left for the next after a miserable love triangle. So he can't feel that sorry. (Or maybe he just never learned from his mistakes.)

But still, it's a deeply sad chapter. You realize that while his life had gone the way he chartered it, the remorse tortured him. 

But don't cry for Hadley. She went on to have a lasting marriage to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Mowrer.

Hadley was 73 years old when the book came out in 1964. Here is a wonderful audio clip of Hadley's response to A Moveable Feast. 

Hemingway had been dead for three years and yet, here was this detailed, loving tribute to their time together, the cafés where they ate and drank, the streets they walked. It must have been other-worldly to read such a personal account of a part of your life, and yet so long ago it must have seemed a past lifetime or to have happened to another person.

And that is the other character in this book, Paris. 

The details are wonderful. The stories, the famous friends, the glimpses into the cafés where he wrote. Some of the cafés are still standing, and his notes are so specific you can trace his steps along the Left Bank. This page and this page even maps them out for you. 

It's been over 90 years since Ernest and Scott and Hadley and Zelda roamed those Paris streets, but isn't it wonderful to think about what streets and coffee shops people will look back on 90 years from now and navigate in the footsteps of a famous author.

I loved A Moveable Feast. It is a fantastic snapshot of a life as it was remembered, and that's always a little bittersweet, isn't it?

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