- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

By Ernest Hemingway
> Scribner, $25, 272 pages

It’s hard to overestimate the effect that Ernest Hemingway had on prose style in English-language fiction. The broader category is essential here, because the effect of this modernist was felt far beyond his native shores, like that of his compatriots Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot on poetry. By showing how much emotion and subtlety he could put into those spare but always evocative sentences, stripped right down to their esssence, Hemingway cleared away the lush density rooted in the Victorian age that had clung to novels and short stories well into the 20th century. All that clear, straightforward writing that we have enjoyed for nearly a century now from writers on both sides of the Atlantic we owe to Hemingway’s pioneering efforts.

At his best, what a masterly stylist he was — think of the intensely distilled feeling in “A Farewell to Arms” and the inventive beauty of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” But a distinctive style like his brought with it a natural tendency to self-parody, and this marred some of the later works that he produced in the last decade of his life. He had set a very high bar for himself, and he was a ruthless and harsh judge of his own work. In the end, his self-criticism as a writer even more than his despair at aging and weakening as a man drove him to suicide when he was not much more than 60 years old.

His executors have not served him well since then by publishing over the years much of that writing he well knew was not up to his standards, but “A Moveable Feast” is very much an exception. A memoir of his early days in Paris in the 1920s, when he was leaving journalism behind and becoming a writer of novels and short stories, it was something he worked at sporadically in the last years of his life, even as late as a couple of months before he put the fatal shotgun to his head in July 1961. When I read it as a teenager on its publication in 1964, I thought that it was up there with the very best things he had ever produced — and reading it now almost half a century later at an age close to his when he wrote it, my opinion has if anything grown still more favorable.

Of course, this “Restored Edition” is slightly different from the one I read 45 years ago, and I think on the whole that this re-editing and reassembling of the patchwork Hemingway left behind is superior to the one that his fourth and final wife, Mary, produced in those early years of her widowhood. But the changes are subtle, and on the whole I think that the qualities that compel the reader toward this book are present in both versions. This new one is preferable because there are more variants and additions, but its impact is very similar to the original text’s.

“A Moveable Feast” is remarkable chiefly for the beauty of its prose and the sharpness of its observation. The way Hemingway is able to combine an elegiac tone with the settling of some old scores is preternatural. The sections dealing with his old friend Scott Fitzgerald make for gripping reading as he deals with everything from his friend’s unwarranted anxiety about the size of his sexual equipment to his destructive alcoholism, about which the writer has no illusions and all the understanding in the world. Hemingway’s warmth toward his dead friend is in marked contrast to his opinion of his wife, Zelda: Her insanity elicits no sympathy but is seen only in its destructive effect on her husband. All in all, the portrait of Scott Fitzgerald is a kind of extended elaboration on the succinct comment made by the acerbic Dorothy Parker as she stood over his dead body: “the poor S.O.B.” And in all that elaboration lies the complexity and double-edged conflictedness of both men.

It is hard to forget the deadly barbs Hemingway aims at Gertrude Stein — “She got to look like a Roman emperor and that was fine if you like your women to look like Roman emperors” — or at his fellow modernist Wyndham Lewis — “the face of an unsuccessful rapist.” And his literary judgment on those he finds wanting can be devastating too: “I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekhov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid. … Mansfield was like near-beer.”

But what you sense throughout this book is the control of this writer over his words and what they express: It is total. Hemingway knows just how much of his inner self to reveal and just how much to deprecate himself:

“But there are remises or storage places where you may leave or store certain things … and this book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

His memory seems just fine in “A Moveable Feast,” harnessed and doing exactly what he wants it to do; and if this book makes one thing absolutely clear, it is that he did indeed have a heart while he was writing it, a heart full to bursting point.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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