A Feast of Inspiration

The story goes that in 1956 Ernest Hemingway found a trunk he had left years before in the basement of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The trunk contained notebooks he had filled during the 1920s when he lived in Paris. He had the notebooks transcribed and in 1964 Scribner’s published A Moveable Feast. Hemingway died in 1961.

If you haven’t read it, the book is a set of memoirs describing his apprenticeship as a young writer in Europe (mostly in Paris) with his first wife, Hadley. The chapters are his personal accounts, observations, and stories of his and their experiences. He gives specific addresses of cafes, bars, hotels, and apartments, some of which can still be found in Paris. He also goes into detail about the characters featured in many of the chapters, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, John Dos Passos and Gertrude Stein, to name a few.

The first time I read A Moveable Feast was in the mid-1980s when I had a job that took me from the Valley region of Texas (McAllen, specifically) into Mexico. Those were early writing years for me and Hemingway’s book tapped into a mix of influences, longing for faraway places, the wonder of fiction and the promise of many more great authors to read. It was an inspiring book for me. Soon after that gig, I moved to New York and the similarities were recognizable: parties with friends, being hungry, struggling to write.

Hemingway did a nice job of straddling the fine line that runs between fact and fiction. He took his own life stories and turned them into those well-crafted, solid and descriptive sentences that defined his work.

Since he was 61 when he found the notebooks, perhaps Hemingway painted a different portrait of himself than the man he might have actually been at 22. Then again, there’s nothing that says he couldn’t take the liberty to do that. He was looking back at himself so he was modest, hopeful, intelligent, learning to write, glorifying the struggle to succeed in his own way. With a wife and a young baby during those years, he was always poor but always optimistic that he would sell another story, or finish his novel.

Since first reading A Moveable Feast, I’ve returned to it a couple more times, the most recent being last summer when I started it on June 20 on a train from Florence, Italy to Murren, Switzerland. We arrived in Paris the afternoon of June 23. I wanted to find 12 rue de l’Odeon, the location where Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company library and bookstore once stood. (It’s in the 6th arrondissement, on the Left Bank.) Sylvia Beach, an expatriate from Baltimore, became good friends with Hemingway and the bookstore became a popular meeting place for artists and writers during those years. The picture below is all that’s left, number 12 is to the left of the window. To the right of the window, the plaque reads:

 

 

 

En 1922
Dans Cette Maison
Melle Sylvia Beach Publia
“Ulysses”
De James Joyce

(Rough translation: In 1922, in this house, Sylvia Beach published “Ulysses” by James Joyce)

There are plenty of inspiring quotes in A Moveable Feast. One of my favorites:

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ ”

Sure … maybe some of the content of the book is sensationalized, some of it not entirely true, maybe dated and maybe not the memorable prose of his noteworthy novels and stories but Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast still remains one of those books that can pick you up and take you away, especially if you’re a writer, and especially if you let it.

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

What books have inspired you? What books of other cities do you love?

Thanks for reading,

George

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15 Responses to “A Feast of Inspiration”

  1. Rain Says:

    I started reading AMF on July 23, 1984. I know this not because I have Superior Autobiographical Memory (SAM) like Marilou Henner and those other six people who can remember everyday of their lives like it was yesterday but because I write the start and finish dates in most of the books that I read. It took me 2 years and 3 days to read The Green Hills of Africa but that’s another story- in fact its a story about Africa not Paris but I digress. On page 55 in Feast Hem wrote something that meant something to me in July of 1984. “We should live in this time now and have evey minute of it.”

    I was in Paris in 1985 and again in 2001. I will be there again next week in 2011. The forecast says that it will be “clear and cold and lovely.” I hope to see the “bare trees against the sky and walk on the fresh-washed gravel paths through the Luxemburg Gardens in the clear sharp wind.” I want to live in this time now and have every minute of it.

    • 4george6 Says:

      Thanks, great comment. The tradition continues … writing the start and finish dates in our books. Live in this time now and have every minute of it! Have a great trip!

  2. eb Says:

    How incredibly serendipitous for me to read this at this moment in my life. I am re-reading years of my journals now. Thank you, George. I am going to make sure I re-read this book immediately for inspiration and guidance.

  3. Phil Says:

    Very nice post George. That book is a personal favorite and relights good memories of my own year in France. Paris is a wonderful place for living in the moment enjoying the sights, sounds and aromas of the city. I can walk all day long there and never tire of the moveable feast. Holly and I have wonderful shared memories of a week spent there as well.

    Since reading your post I started thinking about one particular 80s evening spent with friends at Le Piano Vache on the Left Bank. The April weather was perfect and so after saying our goodbyes I opted for a longish walk to the Metro stop at Ile de la Cite. It was nearing midnight as I crossed a bridge over the Seine and stopped in my tracks upon hearing the river gurgle and flow. All those months living in Paris and I had only ever seen the Seine, not heard it. I quickly realized I was alone on the bridge. No cars, buses or other city noises could be heard, only the sound of my breath and the river. I looked eastward across the City at the late night glow of Le Tour Eiffel in the sky. It was a beautiful few moments alone with the City of Light that I’ll never forget.

    I then continued across the bridge to the square in front of Notre Dame. Again, nobody was around. Just me and Le Cathedrale. I paused to reflect on the many millions of souls who had crossed the same path where I now stood in awe of the architectural and historical wonder.

    Paris is all about those kinds of experiences, really. If only Northwest Hills in Austin, Texas could evoke the same passions. 🙂

    As Rick told Ilsa in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.” And until a return the the City of Lights, we’ll also always have Google maps with street view!

    • 4george6 Says:

      Nice memory, Phil. I love this comment! Are you suggesting Northwest Hills doesn’t remind you of Paris?! Quelle horreur! Thanks for the Casablanca clip.

  4. Holly Says:

    this is one of my all time favorites…in fact i may just re read after reading this!

  5. Robert Smith Says:

    I’m in the Apple Store loading up b4 the departure and I can hear the Cure’s “How Beautiful You Are” playing overhead. The words are:

    You want to know why i hate you?
    Well I try to explain
    You remember that day in Paris
    When we wandered through the rain,
    Promised to each other
    that we’d always be the same
    and dreamed that dream
    to be two souls as one.”

    Not so much but the forecast is for rain.

  6. Dale Says:

    George–What an inspired and inspiring post! I returned to Paris in Nov 2010 after a 27 year gap in visits. I stayed in the Left Bank and walked for hours and hours, making sure to listen and hear, smell and taste, look and really see Paris again. I never got around to reading A Moveable Feast, but I’m going to the bookstore this afternoon to get it! It’s cloudy and big rain is expected to last thru tomorrow…a perfect recipe for a new (old!) book and a fire. How COOL to leave a trunk at the Ritz and to go back and rediscover it?! In moving my existence from decades in NY to Charlotte..I did a lot of purging, and I’ve been re-reading travel journals and old school report cards. It’s fitting to reflect as 50 looms, and to feel the pull back to revisit and slow down in cities I breezed through as a 21 yr old backpacker. Thanks for the reminder. Yay, books! Looking forward to reading yours one day 😉

    • 4george6 Says:

      Wow! What a great comment! I love hearing that people “slow down” and wander, take in the cities and just live in the moment — it’s the best and … Yay, books! Thanks, Dale.

  7. Phil Says:

    George: I’d like to formally suggest that you indulge your Hemingway and francophone interests by researching and penning “A Moveable Feast 2 – The Lost Year in St. Barts.” If you don’t, I will. 😉

  8. Matt Says:

    Paris made me think of Louis Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Much of it is set in Parisian slums. The protagonist is a doctor who sees the indigent in his clinic, and he makes house calls, so the book is a cornucopia of personalities. And then he goes to Africa and North America, and these places are very trippy in his descriptions. He describes a place in New York, an underground men’s shitting club filled with open-air toilets where men go to shit in each other’s company.

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