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Secret Life of an Expat: A Moveable Feast [BOOK WEEK]


a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach

It is ironic that I should start reading the restored edition of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, the unfinished, posthumously (originally published in 1965, annotated, rearranged and republished in 2009) published account of his early years spent in Paris during the 1920s the same week that Ernessa should declare this “Book Week” on Fierce and Nerdy. What better book for an expat writer living in Paris to review than the memoir of an expat writer living in Paris? I am not a huge reader of Hemingway, in fact I have always believed, and I don’t even know specifically why, that as a woman I would not like his work or might be offended by it. But I found this first hand account of his early years as a writer extremely interesting and well written, and packed with useful nuggets of advice.

Even more ironic was the fact that I read this in St Tropez, where after a huge storm we lost electricity for two days, so a good part of it was read by candlelight. It felt more, authentic, you know?

A Moveable Feast covers the five years Ernest Hemingway spent in Paris from 1921 to 1926. It was post-war, pre-war, and he was a WWI veteran in his own early twenties. He speaks a lot on his identity as a young writer, his practice of the craft and what he can learn from other writers. I read this because my mother was coming to visit and she wanted to know more about literary Paris. I knew there had been times when great artists socialized together, gathered around the same bars and restaurants and frequented the posh apartment of one art enthusiast named Gertrude Stein. I didn’t know much more beyond that, and I still don’t know why Paris in the 20s was the place to be for said young writers and artists. That will take a few more memoirs and biographies.

This book discusses neighborhoods I know well, like the Latin Quarter, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Mouffetard, cafes and bookshops that still exist, many made legendary by the frequency of patrons back in the day like Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. He calls  Shakespeare and Company “Sylvia Beach’s library,” where he borrowed novels and money before spending his winters in the alps.

Hem spoke a great deal about his writing practice and how he spent his days “at work” as a burgeoning writer, first writing journalism and short stories, then training himself to write longer and longer stories until he felt capable to write a novel and make some real money. I found myself inspired and perhaps a bit jealous of the importance he placed on his work. He was young, he had a wife to support, and soon a child. His writing was his survival and he had to make it work.

As I have other skills, I am not dependent on my writing to support me, and I sometimes consider the idea of being published a very unlikely dream rather than something I have to make happen to survive. But I am starting to wonder if a writer isn’t really a writer if there isn’t an editor to pay her, and a reader to complete the creative transaction. I recently spoke to a snooty French bed and breakfast owner. When he asked about my métier, I told him that I had two novels that aren’t finished or published. He pointed out in that know-it-all Frenchy way that it very rarely happens that a great artist or writer who was never known before his or her death is discovered later-on. It is silly to keep things in drawers, he said. Becoming known is an important part of having a career, or perhaps even existing, as an artist. This man was clearly an elitist who knew exactly how the world should work, and I could take his words with a kilo of sel, but once I filtered out the fact that he couldn’t understand what it was to create, and that satisfaction could be found in making things even if the final result was placed in a drawer, the rest of what he said rang true.

Hemingway was rigorous with himself to write and sell his work so he could experience life and write more. In the early part of the book, he writes about a room where he went to work, at the top of a hotel in Paris. He talks about the times when his words did not come easily. It inspires me to take my work more seriously, so I thought I would paste a few paragraphs here:

“So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when you had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.”

From: Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast, The Restored Edition. New York: Scribner, 2009.