Anyone who has read A Moveable Feast—Hemingway’s memoirs about his time in Paris, his budding literary career, and his doomed first marriage with his wife Hadley—can appreciate the nostalgic pull of Paris in the 1920’s. Hemingway brings the reader into a world full of literary giants, quaint cafés, and pensive walks along the Seine. He describes his relationships with other great authors, such as Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and often portrays them as unstable and professionally stunted. While the accounts certainly focus on Hemingway’s impressions of Paris and his gradual rise to literary fame and fortune, the book equally focuses on his relationship with Hadley: he describes the relationship with longing, and bitterly laments his affair that drove them apart.
While in Paris, I thought this would be the perfect book to read—what work could be more appropriate for an American English major living in Paris? Even though I was amazed by the accuracy of his depictions of this city and depressed by the emotional trajectory of the book, I found myself being consumed by a “Midnight in Paris” mentality, hoping to be picked up in some random, old-fashioned vehicle that would obviously take me to my destiny in 1920’s Paris.
I constantly compared everything I saw and did with Hemingway’s Parisian life, and quickly realized that the book had given me some serious expectations for my time in Paris, some of which were more realistic than others.
Expectation: If you go to a café, you will probably meet a famous author who will imbue you with wisdom and guidance. Hemingway is constantly going to cafés and running into literary giants, such as James Joyce and Fitzgerald, who are generally drunk and eager to talk about writing. They always engage in some conversation or argument, and Hemingway provides his judgments about his companion’s writing and then returns to whatever masterpiece he is working on.
Reality: When you go to a café alone, bringing along your book or journal, you will probably sit alone and drink your espresso or wine. If you go often enough, you will start to recognize the other people who come to this café: the woman who eats lunch there every day; the couple that always drops in for a beer during happy hour. If you are lucky, the waiter will start to recognize and talk to you. Even though you will probably never see a famous author, you might gain some inspiration for a piece as you observe everything around you.
Expectation: Wandering around Paris while you are starving and penniless gives you a greater appreciation for beauty and art. Hemingway frequently describes how, in an attempt to save money, he does not eat for hours, and instead walks through the Luxembourg gardens relishing his heightened senses and perception of his surroundings.
Reality: While you may actually be penniless in Paris and walking around on an empty stomach, the abundance of restaurants will serve as a constant reminder of all of the delicious food you are not consuming. You may enjoy the Luxembourg gardens briefly before being overwhelmed by the smells of fresh crepes and the sight of tourists picnicking on the grass.
Expectation: You will be able to go everywhere Hemingway did, soaking in the aura of the cafés and paths he frequented. Hemingway spends a great deal of time just walking through the city, stopping at his favorite restaurants, and thinking on the banks of the river.
Reality: You actually can go to almost all of the places about which Hemingway writes, although most are now very expensive and attract tons of tourists. Most restaurants feature a drink called “The Hemingway,” which is different at every place that I have been to (although always very strong, as one might expect). If you are caught reading A Moveable Feast at a café, there is almost a 100 percent chance that a waiter will approach you and tell you, in English, that Hemingway used to eat there, sat in your chair once, etc.
Expectation: Paris is filled with alcohol and food. Hemingway always insists upon a good drink with his delicious meals, and he describes how his friends, especially Fitzgerald, consume alcohol almost constantly.
Reality: Paris is filled with alcohol and food. Now, however, everything just costs more, and you find yourself constantly horrified by the euro-to-dollar conversion.
Hemingway’s memoirs were almost lost forever—thirty years after his Parisian adventures, Hemingway found his journals in a forgotten Louis Viton trunk. Throughout the final years of his life, he immersed himself in the material, and died before it could be published. If you want to feel a little closer to Hemingway, be sure to find a copy of this book, even if you can never completely recreate his Parisian experience.