Review: "A Moveable Feast" By Ernest Hemingway

  • Posted on: 27 February 2016
  • By: TedG

A Moveable Feast is some of Hemingway’s earliest writing, a memoir of life in 1920s Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and their son Jack, whom he refers to as Mr. Bumby. He writes of how he struggled for money, but lived quite well on what little he made. He writes of his friendships with other literati such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We see a man who worked diligently every day on his writing, then spent his afternoons and evenings with friends or walking around the city. It is a lovely collection of vignettes, and it has been hailed by others as a paean to Paris and to that time period.

As often happens, opinions about this book among the eight of us in attendance ranged across a spectrum. But I think that was a reflection of personal taste rather than the quality of the book. Mark, attending his first meeting with us, is a Hemingway aficionado and provided interesting context to our understanding of Hemingway’s life and work. By the end of the conversation, Scott commented that it was one of the best discussions our group had ever had. Average Readability score was 3.8 (out of 5) and average Interest score was 3.6. Everyone said they would read another of Hemingway’s books; indeed, many of us already have.

It was revealed at the meeting that two different versions of the book were available to us (three if you count the first edition copy that Scott had). The two were both paperback reprints, of course, but one was an older “original” and the other was a new “restored edition.” The biggest problem some of us (maybe just one of us) had was with the version of book that some of us read.

Ted explained his preference is to read a book like this as if it were a time capsule, something that transports the reader to the 1920s and to Paris, to walk with Hemingway in the streets of the City of Light and to be enamored of its charms as he was. But instead, the “restored edition” (published in 2009) features a foreword by one of Hemingway’s sons (not Mr. Bumby, but Patrick, borne of Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline) and an introduction by a grandson. The former is an incomprehensible attempt to derive what Hemingway meant by “moveable feast.” The latter is an exposition on how this version of the book is “…Hemingway’s original manuscript text as he had it at the time of his death in 1961.” It suggests that this is the book Hemingway intended to publish instead of the one that came out in 1964 (published by his fourth wife, Mary) and contained an introductory letter ostensibly written by Hemingway, but actually “fabricated by Mary Hemingway from manuscript fragments.” This version, we are told, has rearranged the order of the essays, bringing some in and taking others out; it includes photographs of original written text and additional “Paris Sketches” and “Fragments” of early versions of some of the book’s essays. For Ted, this “restoration” ruined the book in some ways. While many of the essays are still enjoyable, the entire experience felt as though the history had been re-written and that we were viewing Paris, and Hemingway, through someone else’s eyes.

A review published by Hemingway’s biographer, A.E. Hotchner, in the New York Times in 2009 when the “restored edition” first came out stated, “Ernest was very protective of the words he wrote, words that gave the literary world a new style of writing. Surely he has the right to have these words protected against frivolous incursion, like this reworked volume that should be called A Moveable Book.” In a more tempered review, Irene Gammel wrote, “Ethically and pragmatically, restoring an author’s original intent is a slippery slope when the published text has stood the test of time…”, but she conceded that while the original 1964 version should be considered the definitive text, “the ‘restored’ version provides access to important unpublished contextual sources that illuminate the evolution of the 1964 edition.”

It can be enlightening to “lift the curtain” and to understand the context in which a book was written. But the restored version of A Moveable Feast is an example of how not to do that. It is a book worth reading, but be sure to buy a copy of the original version.