Never travel without a book. Fair enough. So it was forgetting to pack a novel that led me to buying Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast at the airport bookshop before boarding a flight upcountry.
With his love of hunting, game fishing, bull fighting, being wounded in World War I and on the front lines of both the Spanish civil war and World War II as a journalist, as well as having four wives, Hemingway has become synonymous with masculinity, often deemed to be toxic, to the point of being a parody. This may have been a good thing up until the end of the ‘80s but as gender studies, feminism, and the LGBTQI+ movement have gained momentum, along with anti-racism and intersectionality, Hemingway is no longer the hero he was – culturally at least.
Nonetheless, there’s a reason people not only still talk of him, they read him too, as the reprints prove, while his contemporaries, such as Thomas Wolfe or Sinclair Lewis fade away out of print in second-hand bookshops. The mythology that continues, despite values having (hopefully) shifted, may play a role but essentially, it is due to the strength of his writing.
There is a surprising sense of self-awareness in the 20 stories that make up A Moveable Feast, of apology for the affair that ended his first marriage, of self-criticism for his gambling habit, of forgiveness and reconciliation to former friends with whom he quarrelled and fell out (Gertrude Stein, most famously), but then he did write these memoirs of his time in Paris at the end of his life, and if self-awareness and forgiveness do not arrive at the end of life, they will not arrive at all.
All the stories, with the exception of the last which is set more in Austria where he and his wife spent the winter while based in Paris, are set in Paris during the 1920s when he was a young man trying to make a living as a writer rather than as a journalist. True to his sparse style avoidant of adjectives, he refrains from describing the City of Light. Rather, the stories are about his life, who he met and what he did with them, and sometimes, what he thought of them. In this way, we get a sense of what it was like to live there, then, and be part of the modernist thinking that held sway. Names are mentioned – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot – but never boasted of. We get a sense of a young man both sure of himself – he had been through World War I by then – and critical of his own literary ability while living the reality of what has become highly romanticised: being a young struggling artist in Europe’s most vaunted city.
We experience it through his daily routines, such as choosing a suitable cafe to write in, choosing particular routes to walk for particular reasons, meeting with friends at various times of day, how to make the little money he had stretch. From a slight distance, the content is largely banal, it is our own imagination that enjoins Hemingway’s memory and infuses what we read with a nostalgic glow. But once that is recognised, his stories open questions about our own life, about here and now. For we cannot visit that Paris, and for many of us, even being young has passed. It is impossible. Yet what of here, and now? Hemingway’s memoirs urge us to relook at the present.
What do we observe of Cape Town in the 2020s? One hundred years from now, could this be considered the Paris of the world, a place we could write of at the end of our life, as Hemingway did of Paris, that to if you are lucky enough to have lived there, it would stay with you for the rest of your life, for Cape Town is a moveable feast? It is entirely possible. And entirely up to us, requiring observation and the effort of recognition. It is the gift A Moveable Feast give us, if we are willing to detach ourselves from the sweet addictions of sentimentality and borrowed nostalgia: to recognise the full riches of our time and place.
Hemingway’s prose sweeps away the superfluous, and urges us to do the same. To look for the essential. The ropes and the rust and the iridescent scales from fish as walk past the fishers along the quay at Kalk Bay harbour, rather than wasting our energy in selfies and poses for consumption by people we don’t know and who don’t care. To revel in the southeaster slowing our progress as we battle down Adderley Street or past the misspelled signage on the walls of forever-faded Tawakal shops on Woodstock main road. To avoid clicking to Facebook or Twitter as we work on our laptops in coffee shops, sticking to the work we’ve given ourselves to do. To meet afterwards with real people, over beer or wine. To observe, to create, to make meaning. This is the gift Hemingway, in his inimitable masculine style, urges us to take. Political correctness be damned.