Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Moveable Feast

Each weekday morning there's a lull in my routine after the older kids leave for school and the youngest wakes up and needs breakfast, dressing or just to sit on the couch with me for a snuggle and to watch Dora. In this time between the rush of lunch-making and dashing off to daycare, I've been reading Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Or, I should say, re-reading it.

When I was younger, in my early 20s, I read it probably almost a dozen times or so. After buying a little retail business and becoming mired in that day-to-day, same four walls existence, I found no time to write. For almost a decade I didn't write anything of any substance. In that time, I couldn't even think of reading A Moveable Feast, the story of Hemingway's early years in Paris (1921-1926) when he pursued the noble vocation of writing, recounting those days when he would forgo food and live in near poverty if it meant the time to write a good story, or even one true sentence. Romantic, I know, but I couldn't think of the memoir without thinking that I should have worked harder when I was younger at what I knew deep down I wanted to do. Not necessarily as a career, even, but just something I wanted to accomplish - a novel, a story, one sentence.

So I set the book aside, though I always knew where it was. The copy I have is an old paperback Scribner Classic published by Macmillan Publishing Company. It's unremarkable except for the well-worn creases in the spine, dog-eared pages and the underlining of favorite passages, not just of mine, but of my good friend Jim Phillips. When we were roommates for so many years long ago we would both read the same copy and make notes of particularly noteworthy sentences or paragraphs. Jim is a songwriter in New Mexico now.

"on the train"
Several years ago, my sister Elizabeth was going to Paris for a vacation and I loaned her my copy (I wasn't going to read it) and she made it even more special by taking photographs of areas or landmarks Hemingway mentions, cut them out and placed them in the appropriate pages within the book. So now it's a treat to read:

Now you were accustomed to see the bare trees against the sky and you walked the fresh-washed gravel paths through the Luxembourg gardens in the clear sharp wind.

And tucked in there, between pages 10 and 11 is a little two-inch by three-inch picture of just that scene and with her handwriting on the back, "fresh-washed gravel paths."

Or, on page 179, to find a photo of a street sign marking rue de Tilsitt and reading that this is where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived.

They are little treasures in a book filled with treasures. Hemingway began writing this in Cuba and there are mentions of his working on it, worrying over it as he did, all through A.E. Hotchner's wonderful biography of his later years, Papa Hemingway. He eventually set it aside to write The Dangerous Summer which would become Death in the Afternoon, and Feast wasn't completed until after his death.

It's romantic, I know, this notion of squirreling away in a Paris flat, eating mostly bread and drinking in cafes, lighting a wood stove to keep warm in the mornings while you hammer away at the great American novel. But so what. It's a pleasant thing to read and I'm glad I'm in a place where I can do it without wondering "what if" and having that depression set in when there's something I know I should be doing, but am not. And, anyway, writing should be romantic. So should reading.

I read one chapter each morning and it gets my blood flowing and my brain working and puts my heart into whatever I have to do that day. In the book, Hemingway talks of how he would prepare himself each day to write, this is how I prepare myself.

(I'm nearly finished re-reading A Moveable Feast. What's next? What other books of inspiration are out there?)