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