A Moveable Feast: the Restored Edition

For all the macho guff, a new edition of Hemingway’s sketches of Paris is a reminder that he was cap

Ernest Hemingway spent 40 years converting himself into a myth, and his readers have now spent 50 years trying to convert him back. If we cannot know the writer as he truly was, we want at least to get a look at him; but "Hemingway" keeps obstructing our view.

In the case of A Moveable Feast, it is a task even to free the book from its reputation. This assemblage of 20 sketches is concerned with Paris between 1921 and 1926, when Hemingway was living in straitened circumstances with his first wife, Hadley Richardson; finding writing difficult but making progress with it; sitting at the feet of Gertrude Stein; and looking after the hypochondriac F Scott Fitzgerald, who seemed "both shy and happy" about the quality of The Great Gatsby. But this slim memoir has been swollen into a romantic narrative of the hard-working, hard-living young writer and celebrated as the definitive portrait of the old Paris. It is also mistaken for a spiteful work, in which Hemingway is rude about people who were kind to him, when it is really an act of reclamation, in which Hemingway offers a rueful portrait of his younger self as ungenerous and short-sighted.

Then there is the matter of where and when the book was written, as well as exactly what was written. In 1956 - or was it 1957? - Hemingway was asked by staff at the Paris Ritz to take back two suitcases that had been sitting in the hotel cellar for almost 30 years. The suitcases contained old clothes and newspaper cuttings, together with a number of notebooks. This mass of material sent Hemingway back to an old idea, first raised in 1933, after the publication of Gertrude Stein's memoir The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. With the help of his "rat-trap memory", he would write about Paris as it had really been - but not yet: "It is only when you can no longer believe in your own exploits that you write your memoirs."

The task was finally begun in the summer of 1958 and completed in the spring of 1960, with revisions made later the same year. Or so his fourth wife, Mary, told us in the paragraph of explanation that preceded the text published in 1964, three years after Hemingway killed himself. Now along comes his grandson Seán to tell admirers of this frequently cited book that they have been living a lie, or at least believing Mary's. His "restored edition" gives us a text that Hemingway would have been happier with, but it is preceded by an introduction I'd have been happier without.

It has long been known that Hemingway's widow and his publisher at Scribner, L Harry Brague, performed a little surgery when pre­paring "The Paris Sketches" for publication. The editor of the new volume, who is fond of words such as "fabricated" and "egregious", makes an accusation unsupported by the partial evidence he provides:

The extensive edits Mary Hemingway made to this text seem to have served her own . . . relationship with the writer as his fourth and final wife, rather than the interests of the book or the author, who comes across in the posthumous first edition as something of an unknowing victim, which he clearly was not.

The only recorded complaint that Mary Hemingway made to her husband about the book (not quoted by Seán Hemingway) was "It's not much about you", and her modifications do nothing to affect this, nor to promote her own interests, whatever they may be. As for her extensive edits, here is Mary's own account from her 1976 memoir, How It Was:

With the exception of a couple of chapters about which he had worried and which I felt not sufficiently germane to the tenor of the book, I thought it read very well. So did Harry Brague at Scribner's. We worked together checking Ernest's final draft, making a few further cuts and switching about some of the chapters for continuity's sake.

This process of checking and cutting and switching - which Seán Hemingway does not dispute - seems to have done the book little harm. It was the widow and the publisher who decided on the title, which Seán retains; it was this same pair who decided on the chapter titles, and Seán retains those, too. He returns the material to its original order, with the result that the three sketches of Gertrude Stein no longer come together. He also removes certain passages that Hemingway had removed from his final drafts, though he prints these as "Additional Paris Sketches", so we
still have them, against the author's wishes, and still between the covers of a book called A Moveable Feast.

As restored by Seán Hemingway, the book still begins "Then there was the bad weather", but it no longer ends "This is how Paris was when we were very poor and very happy". The chapter "There Is Never Any End to Paris" has been excised, and the text is now rounded off with the penultimate chapter of the 1964 version, "A Matter of Measurements", in which Hemingway reassures Fitzgerald about the size of his penis, and then, "long after the end of World War II", reflects sadly on his old friend in a conversation with a barman at the Ritz. So the new edition ends on a note of retrospection and sadness, while the rest of the book remains suffused with the excitement of youth.

The continuing interest of this book for readers of The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea lies neither in its setting nor in the author's encounters with Fitzgerald and Stein, but in the relationship between Hemingway the author and Hemingway the protagonist. The latter gropes towards the style that the former now displays. The young Hemingway aspired to make rather than describe, and to get rid of all facility, scroll-work and ornament. Ezra Pound, who comes off well, taught him "to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain given situations". Hemingway learned a great deal from the "Rooshians" (as Pound allegedly called them), in the translations by Constance Garnett that he borrowed from Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company. The style that he eventually achieved works by omitting some things, such as explanation and punctuation, and repeating others:

I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry.

It is the promise of more hypnotically daft sentences such as this, and of excited reflections on writing, his own and other people's, that helps you through the passages about fishing, horse racing, skiing and - in the new edition - boxing.

Reading Hemingway has always been an exercise in putting up with macho guff; and having to read his grandson, with his footnote fever and appendicitis, serves only to pepper the pill. But this book also provides a good opportunity to spend time with A Moveable Feast, just as Hemingway's macho guff is redeemed by the intermittent arrival of what he called "true sentences". All in all, the prose outweighs the cons.

A Moveable Feast: the Restored Edition
Ernest Hemingway, edited by Seán Hemingway
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £17.99

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer of the NS

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis