Hemingway draws out the dark fascination that readers like myself have with authors, great authors, especially the mythic figures of the so-called Modern age. In a preface he writes that “this book may be regarded as fiction” and if one can set aside the fact that his “characters” are portraits of actual people, one might regard A Moveable Feast as one of his great novels.
However, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, etc., were real people. The vitriol reserved for Hemingway and for this book seems to stem primarily from a moral objection to its precise, calculated, brilliant smear jobs. Witness his assault on Zelda Fitzgerald:
Zelda was very beautiful and was tanned a lovely gold color and her hair was a beautiful dark gold and she was very friendly. Her hawk’s eyes were clear and calm. I knew everything was going to be all right and was going to turn out well in the end when she leaned forward and said to me, telling me her great secret, “Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?”
Nobody thought anything of it at the time. It was only Zelda’s secret that she shared with me, as a hawk might share something with a man. But hawks do not share. Scott did not write anything any more that was good until after he knew that she was insane. (186)
There isn’t a lot of sympathy for Zelda Fitzgerald floating out there, but when Hemingway stunningly builds up and then assassinates the character of Gertrude Stein, it’s clear why so many writers I know hate Hemingway and this book. Apart from any moral objections you might make, the “novel” is brilliant. It’s one of his best books and contains some of his best writing.
Bubbling beneath the surface of this book is Hemingway’s relationship with Hadley Richardson and their failed marriage. If you can push aside for a moment the stereotype of the misogynist Hemingway you’ll discover, in these pages, a Hemingway saddened by the failure of this marriage and one who, perhaps uncharacteristically, blames himself entirely. A character rather than a self-portrait? In any case, perhaps the most affecting moment in the book occurs when he foretells this failure. This follows a long and pleasant discussion of their happy life in Paris, and discovering Sylvia Beach’s library:
”… we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.” [says Hemingway]
”Would that be honest?”
”Does she have Henry James too?”
”My,” she said. “We’re lucky that you found the place.”
”We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too. (38)