Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Way Things Were

{[Just thought I'd bore you with this essay I wrote for a class. Lame but useful if you're looking for a definition of inaccrochable. Let me know if you find one.]}
UPDATE: Hunters for a definition of inaccrochable can find an attempt here. Otherwise, this is so bad it's not worth tagging.

A Moveable Feast is a romantic account of Ernest Hemingway’s jocular and hungry days in Paris as a budding writer in the early 1920s. In that age, Hemingway reports, he wrote, drank, betted on horses, gallivanted with fellow writers and expatriates, and observed all things. This was a wondrous time, indeed. But the book wraps these experiences in something dark and ominous. Hemingway’s flippant behavior echoes a collective desire to escape the horrific memories of the First World War. In the book, Hemingway comes across a generation of writers on their last legs. He wrote the book during the final years of his own life. Readers can treat this book as a collection of elegant and prophetic memories reported in the finest detail. But take inventory of these attributes, and the reader will find that A Moveable Feast is often more like a writer’s manual, expounding on characteristics that build writers and those that eventually kill them.

In 1917, as the United States deployed forces to fight the Great War, Hemingway tried to join the Army and settled with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. In 1918, he quit his job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and set off for Europe. After a short stop in Paris, the Red Cross dispatched Hemingway to Italy. During his first day on duty in Milan, an ammunition factory exploded, engulfing troops in the blast and sending their body parts flying. Hemingway helped collect their appendages. In July of 1918, an Austrian mortar put an end to Hemingway’s tenure in the war, shooting over 200 pieces of shrapnel into his leg. He healed and took a job in a Milan hospital.

After the war, Europeans had grown weary of the grinding death machine and disillusioned about life. It did not help that they were privy to an economic recession. Hemingway spent these years in Chicago, then France. In Paris, from 1921 to 1926, according to A Moveable Feast, he grew bored of journalism and devoted his time to writing fiction, haunting cheap Parisian cafes and running into his mentors, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. Call those years early retirement—slow, repetitive, and carefree. But it was diligent retirement, a time to study the nuance of retirement. In Paris, Hemingway set out to write his first novel. By 1926, he produced The Sun Also Rises, which details the life of “The Lost Generation,” ex-pats who spend most of their time gallivanting and drinking.

Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase, “The Lost Generation.” In A Moveable Feast, she has limited hope for Hemingway’s “inaccrochable” writing. “She told me that I was not a good enough writer to be published [in the Atlantic Monthly] or in the Saturday Evening Post but that I might be some new sort of writer in my own way but the first thing to remember was not to write stories that were inaccrochable,” (15). The Babel Fish online translator said this word is the same in English as in French, inaccrochable. Multiple dictionaries could not yield an English definition of the word. Judging by its use in online sources, Stein’s explanation—“like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either”—and Hemingway’s clarification that he used “words that people would actually use,” (15), inacccrochable is something so offensive, vulgar, up-front or crude that it cannot be published.

Though Stein was an influence on Hemingway, in the book he doesn’t seem to accept her advice or respect her outlook. He writes that Stein lives in a fine home and surrounds herself with a court of hagiographers. “I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald,” (27). Hemingway’s favor with her appears to depend on whether he shows an obvious and glowing interest in her writing. He took the opportunity of A Moveable Feast to make his feelings clear:

“She disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible, although she needed to have publication and official acceptance, especially for the unbelievably long book called The Making of Americans.

“The book began magnificently, went on very well for a long way with great stretches of great brilliance and then went on endlessly in repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket,” (17, 18).

It is prophetic if he arrived at this perceptive criticism at so young an age. The passage indicates that pride can be any writer’s greatest flaw. The passage also indicates that Hemingway is prideful.

In a later chapter of “A Moveable Feast,” Stein chastises Ernest Hemingway and the young people like him who served in the war. “You are a lost generation,” she says, quoting a garage owner from earlier that day. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death,” (29). Hemingway finds the comment pompous and inaccurate. “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?” (30). If the reader considers the current reputation of brilliantly inaccrochable modern writers like William Faulkner, they will probably feel the same way about Gertrude Stein’s comments.

Hemingway ends A Moveable Feast with a long profile of Scott Fitzgerald. In the book, Hemingway first meets Fitzgerald—who he refers to simply as Scott—in the Dingo bar in the rue Delambre, “where I was sitting with some completely worthless characters,” (149). Scott is not much older than Hemingway. He has money, some success, a wife, a child, fine features and “a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty,” (149). Shortly after this meeting, Fitzgerald will publish his stylized and pointedly tragic novel The Great Gatsby, which will eventually make it onto reading-lists for high school English classes across the country. Still, as they meet, Hemingway is more inclined to flatter himself. “Scott did not stop talking and since I was embarrassed by what he said—it was all about my writing and how great it was—I kept on looking at him closely,” (150). He observes and describes Scott at length, ignoring Scott’s long monologue, then later returns to the topic of his own writing. “Until then I had felt that what a great writer I was had been carefully kept secret between myself and my wife,” (150). As we can see, Hemingway can be quite the egotist.

Hemingway does not concern himself with praising Scott Fitzgerald at length. Rather, he offers a sad image of his friend: the great writer is entering the beginning stages of alcoholism and his life is spiraling out of control. This truth shows through in their frustrating trip to Lyon. Hemingway misses Scott at the train station and embarks on the mission alone. When he reaches Lyon, Scott is nowhere to be found. Finally they meet in the lobby of Hemingway’s hotel. The trip has been disastrous for Fitzgerald and, in a typically disruptive fashion, his wife Zelda never told him where Hemingway was.

After breakfast, Ernest and Scott head to the hotel bar for whiskey and Perrier as they wait to collect picnic lunches for their drive. “Scott had obviously been drinking before I met him,” (161), Hemingway notes. It starts raining and the car is a convertible. During their drive, they stop to eat and drink some wine. At Mâcon, Hemingway buys four more bottles for the rest of their trip. Scott begins to worry that he is suffering from “congestion of the lungs.” It is an old-fashioned term for pneumonia, Hemingway says. Scott disagrees. This sparks a long, meandering argument about the disease and the term’s international origins. When the two arrive in a small town, Scott climbs into bed and belligerently demands that Hemingway seek out a thermometer. Ernest assures Scott that a whiskey and lemonade will set him straight. He sees Scott’s point. “Most drunkards in those days died of pneumonia, a disease which has now been almost eliminated. But it was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol,” (166). Nevertheless, he orders two double whiskies and two citron presses in addition to the thermometer.

This drawn out journey earns Scott the mockingly formal moniker Fitzgerald. Later in the book, Hemingway’s picture of Fitzgerald grows darker. The Great Gatsby is a literary success but a commercial failure. Fitzgerald has been writing formulaic stories to make money. But it gets harder and harder for him to stay productive. Zelda is jealous of his writing, so she flirts with other men and drags him to parties. Eventually, “he was drunk now in the day time as well as the nights. […] He had begun to be very rude to his inferiors or anyone he considered his inferior,” (183). Scholars can debate the extent to which Zelda, or just a recurring affliction with tuberculosis, led to Scott Fitzgerald’s undoing. Ultimately, a heart attack killed him in December of 1940. But alcohol was his dearest vice, haunting him throughout life and preparing him for an early death.

Hemingway began writing A Moveable Feast in 1957 in Cuba and continued at it in Idaho in the winter of 1958-59. He finished it in the spring of 1960 in Cuba, after writing The Dangerous Summer, the final book he would see published before his death. At this time, Hemingway’s health was failing, in part because of two tragic accidents during an East African safari and in part because he consumed a quart of liquor a day. He struggled with his work. He suffered from intense depression and paranoia. He tested the resolve of his loved ones. In the fall of 1960, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to treat his depression. A doctor there subjected him to electro-shock therapy, wiping out his memory and certainly exacerbating his terrible condition. On July 2, 1961, he took his own life with a shotgun blast to the head.

It is clear from A Moveable Feast that in 1920s Paris, consuming wine was Hemingway’s most cherished activity, next to writing. There are perhaps no other tasks he describes more frequently throughout the book than choosing a café, concocting some logical conclusion that permits him to drink, choosing a wine, diluting it with varying amounts of water and then drinking it. Considering the final years of Hemingway’s life, the reader will see that these passages clearly recount both a great pastime and a great burden.

A Moveable Feast would not be worth reading if it were written by anyone other than Ernest Hemingway, because few writers could have made something meaningful out of a book so prosaic and repetitive. As rife as this book is with beautiful minute details and odd scenes, it is also sprawling, layered story of paradigms shifting—an empire collapsing, a culture rebuilding itself, writers aging—told by a writer at the end of his days. But this book is also useful for any writer. In his honest, contradictory and sometimes inaccrochable way, Ernest Hemingway simply describes what surrounds him, what it takes to be a great writer, and what great writers can become.


Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 1964.

Wilson, M. Ed. Wilson, M. Hemingway Resource Center. Last updated Dec. 21, 2005.

1 comment:

WowMcKenna said...

Hey, I immediately went to the internet translators looking for inaccrochable too, to no success; but whipping out the French-English dictionary I have proved more successful after some searching.

The word is a construction of the verb "accrocher": to hang up, hook. Accrochez votre pardessus et votre chapeau au porte-maneau. Hang your coat and hat on the coat-rack.

So I'm guessing the word is "un-hangup-able."