A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife

June Book Club was a double bill: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

A Moveable Feast is a collection of vignettes recalling the years in the 1920s Hemingway spent living in Paris. Each of the people he knew there, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and several others, has their story told. The depictions aren’t always flattering but there is a sense that all the fluff has been cut away and that Hemingway gets to the core of who people really are. While technically this is non-fiction it was written many years after the events, and knowing that Hemingway’s fiction is closely based on his life, there is the sense that story and style matter more than fact. The truth that Hemingway is in search of is a truth of the heart and mind, not the truth of reportage. The content isn’t something I’d normally enjoy; it’s a bit gossipy and has a slight feel of Heat magazine to it, but I love the writing style.

I love the deceptively simple bare bones starkness of it. I love the way every single word matters. I love the intensity and the sense of striving for emotional truth. I first read this when I was nineteen and it’s always interesting to read again the things that had a big impact when you were young, just to see whether it’s as good as you remember, or whether the greatness was fuelled by teen angst. It was better second time round. I will definitely be re-reading the rest of his work at some point soon.

The Paris Wife is the story of Hadley, Hemingway’s wife during the Paris years. Hadley is a shadowy figure in A Moveable Feast and barely gets mentioned. She isn’t even named until halfway through. It was a brave choice to write this book, given that Hemingway is one of those writers that tends to inspire irrational fandom. It starts when they meet in Chicago, tells the story of their courtship and marriage, and then the story of their time in Paris up until Hemingway falls in love with someone else and their marriage ends.

I didn’t find McLain’s portrayal of Hadley sympathetic. From the notes to the book, it seems McLain did a lot of research and tried to keep her story as factual as possible – although when I was reading the story I wasn’t convinced she’d done any research at all. For the first half of the book I was intensely annoyed; the tone was all wrong, the language was too modern and the dialogue didn’t ring true. Fortunately, it’s a very easy read so it didn’t take long to get through it. And by the halfway point I was totally engaged. The second half of the book was much better and much of what’s wrong with it would have been fixed by cutting the first 150 pages.

The Paris Wife makes an interesting counterpoint to A Moveable Feast and it’s worth reading to round out your perspective. It’s particularly illuminating about the events that became The Sun Also Rises.  Any Hemingway is worth reading.

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