Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Moveable Feast redux

I'm not a fan of Ernest Hemingway, but I do have a well-worn copy of A Moveable Feast, his semi-fictional account of his time in Paris in the 1920s. I bought the book long ago because it's about Paris, not because it was written by Hemingway. It's the only work of his that I've ever read, and it will probably remain so, because I don't much care for his writing style, and if anything the book has discouraged me from reading anything else he has written.

Hemingway was depressed when he wrote the book, forty years after the period that he describes therein, and his depression casts a dark shadow on the entire text, like a huge storm cloud. There are some snippets of humor in the book, but for the most part it's just terribly morose, and this despite the fact that it's about my favorite city—and despite the fact that presumably the period Hemingway describes in the book was happy for him at the time he lived it. Still, it talks about Paris enough to be interesting, in moderate doses.

Of course, the city has changed since he lived here, greatly in certain ways but hardly at all in others. I don't think goats and their owners still ply the streets advertising fresh goat milk, for example … although I do hear the unmistakable braying of a goat in the street outside about once a week, and one of these days I'm going to peek out the window when I hear it to see if there really is someone still selling raw goat milk in the streets of Paris. Hemingway also talks about septic tanks being emptied by honey wagons in the 1920s, whereas I think that just about everyone is now linked to the extensive municipal sewer system that the city has had since long before Hemingway lived here. But there again, I do see trucks that look exactly like those described by him parked in front of certain buildings from time to time, so I do still wonder. It's true what they say about Paris: the more it changes, the more it remains the same.

Once of these days, I have a project to visit each and every spot mentioned by Hemingway in the book and document them all in some way, just for fun. Some of them have hardly changed at all; others have changed greatly. In an old picture of Hemingway with his son, I immediately recognized the street corner on which they were sitting, even though the photo was presumably taken nearly a hundred years ago.

A problem with A Moveable Feast is that the author likes to describe everything he eats and drinks in detail, which makes me a bit queasy. He never seems to drink anything that does not contain a great deal of alcohol, which further alienates me, as I don't do drugs. He seems to enjoy physical sensations, because he talks about eating, drinking, the environmental conditions around him as he walks about the city, and sex with his wife a lot. These discussions don't do much for me and make his book less interesting.

He also describes his poverty at the time he lived in Paris. In reality he wasn't poor at all, but apparently he thought it more interesting to exaggerate in the book. Unfortunately, I really am poor, and being reminded of the unpleasantness of poverty does not enhance my enjoyment of the book.

Still, I like the book, because it's about Paris and describes Paris in considerable detail. I don't have too many books like that, outside the category of guide books, so it's entertaining to go back to the book and read a few pages from time to time.

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