Hemingway in Montparnasse

'A Moveable Feast' - A Sort of Book Review

by Ric Erickson

Paris:-Wednesday, 11. September 1996:- In July, after a long search through cupboards and broom-closets, I found an old copy of Ernest Hemingway's Paris memoir, 'A Moveable Feast.' It is a version published by Penguin in 1964, and according to the inside front cover, it belongs to Lenox - and it was dated in pencil in 1970 - and perhaps I should return it.

In the forward, Mary Hemingway has written that Hemingway began the book in the summer of 1958 and made some revisions to it in the fall of 1960 - and it concerns the years 1921 to 1926 in Paris, or about 70 years ago as time flies.

Almost everybody knows that Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and some people know that he was a good writer, if not the best. Some people cannot stand his style of writing; and other people find it mannered. I do not think 'A Moveable Feast' is his best book, and I am not alone.

By suggesting in the book's preface - in 1960! - that 'A Moveable Feast' may be considered fiction, Hemingway is more or less saying that the ancient quarrels are unforgotten - and seems even bitter - perhaps because his skills are disputed - and the book seems intended to settle some old scores. You may know what these are if you are a Doctor Lit.

From reading the book, one can tell that it was written mostly from memory - not dairies. After the years in Cuba in the '30's, after the World War and after the plane crash in Africa and other injuries, his memory was pretty good.


In 1976 - 50 years after the events in the book - I was working for kids' magazines, at Editions Fleurus, at 31 rue de Fleurus in Montparnasse. Gertrude Stein, who encouraged Hemingway, lived at number 27, next door to my publisher - so it is possible I spent more time in this street than Hemingway did, as the magazines were published weekly. Hemingway writes that everybody got fed up with Miss Stein; but most of them made up again. He dosen't say who didn't.

After the first World War, Hemingway had been a reporter for a Toronto newspaper, and if you read any of his pieces you will recognize the future Hemingway - the writer. In the period covered by 'A Moveable Feast' he had pretty much given up this work to concentrate on writing full time, but it was hard going and he had to take on occasional assignments to make ends meet.

On days when he intended to write, he would look at the chimney of the hotel where he had rented a room to work in, to see if the wind was right, trying to figure out if the stove would draw or the room would fill with smoke and waste his firewood. He did not use a knife to sharpen his pencils because a sharpener was more economical.

Hemingway's home

He and his wife lived - for part of the period - at 115, rue Notre-Dame-des-
Champs. This street starts at the rue Vaugiraud-Rennes corner, crosses the boulevard Raspail and hooks up and runs parallel to the boulevard Montparnasse, through to the Observatory at boulevard St. Michel where it becomes Port Royal just above the Luxembourg gardens. It is a very old street, once part of the trail from the Vaugiraud quarries to the building site of the Château des Tuleries.

Many other artists have lived on this street in the last few hundred years. At just over a kilometre in length, they are too many to name - and Hemingway is not in my 'official' history. Standing in front of number 115 today, I cannot tell how old the present building is - it could be '20's Modern, or from the early '30's - but one thing is sure: it is not a sawmill - but Hemingway never wrote that the 'sawmill' was at 115. It is certainly an apartment building, of seven floors. The plaque, in the photo, for the Faculty of Economics and Management, refers to the building behind - which could have been a sawmill.

The back door of the boulangerie, at number 110, that Hemingway used as a shortcut - from the 'flat above the sawmill' - to go to the boulevard Montparnasse, to where it comes out at number 151, is still there. I asked if many people came through it, looking for Hemingway, and the answer is yes.

On the boulevard, the Closerie des Lilas is a short distance to the left - and, unlike today, welcomed artists in the 1920's - who passed their time there, being together, cheaply. In 'A Moveable Feast' Hemingway gives the idea that he used the place to avoid the circus atmosphere at the Vavin corner - which had a cast of thousands at the time.

The bar in the Closerie des Lilas remains largely unchanged, except for the shape of the mirrors. In the book, Hemingway spent a fair bit of time outside on the terrace - even in winter, as there was outdoor heating. I did not see this heating today, but the statue of Maréchal Ney is still right there.

The bar top, just before the curve, has a plaque with the writer's name on it. The barman told me Hemingway's favorite poison was 'Old Grandad' - but this was not so in the '20's, when he might have chosen a hot rum, if he had just sold an article and was treating himself.

Les Lilas

When Hemingway was in good shape, he would sometimes go to the Le Select just beyond the Vavin corner of the boulevard Montparnasse. Coming out, to avoid meeting somebody, he passed La Rotonde - skipping the showy bunch of goodtime people there - to go to Le Dôme. He writes, "There were models who had worked and there were painters who had worked until the light was gone and there were writers who had finished off a day's work for better or for worse, and there were drinkers and characters some of whom I knew and some that were only decoration."

And I suppose, what is missing from 'A Moveable Feast' - for me - is a notion of the non-stop party that was Montparnasse in the 1920's. In chapter 11 he has a drink with Pascin and two of his models at Le Dôme, but writes that he did not accept Pascin's invitation to dine with the models at 'Chez Viking,' because he preferred to eat with his 'légitime' - his wife, Hadley.

Myself, I do not know the Rotonde - but Le Select, a short block further west, is the only place from the old days that has remotely retained the character of the time - not that working artists hang out there today. And the light is gone from it too since the additional floors were added some years ago to La Coupole, across the street, on the south side of the boulevard.

Le Dome

The 'sweet' parts of 'A Moveable Feast' are really good to read and are a great advertisement for a Paris that was. The 'sour' parts - especially about Scott Fitzgerald - seem out of place; a sort of 'settling-up' - a feud Hemingway couldn't let go of.

Hemingway had his Nobel Award after all, and Fitzgerald had fizzled out - through no fault of Hemingway's - and was gone from the scene when 'A Moveable Feast' was written.

Although he permits the reader to accept 'A Moveable Feast' as fiction, Hemingway's greatest strength as a writer in this century was that his fiction was history. He worked a long time and he worked very hard, attempting to capture - truly - how certain people acted, thought and talked, in his times. Very few other writers got as close as he did, if any.

Today we are corrupted again with fiction. Without a Hemingway to listen and to observe what we really do, how we really sound - whether we have any shred of ethics - and trying to set it down as close to reality as possible, how will we know who we really are? For his people, his characters, he cared enough to do the best he could do.

If you have not met people from that time, you will think that Hemingway wrote fiction. If you have met them, then all of Hemingway's work seems like something very close to truth - something that is missing today. Gone, like Montparnasse in the 1920's.

Hemingway bar
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