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NBCC Featured Review: Steve Paul on Ernest Hemingway

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from the Kansas City Star, Steve Paul reviews Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

In the last paragraph of the possible last chapter of the last book Ernest Hemingway struggled to finish before taking his own life, the great writer reiterates that he had mined the remises, or storage places “of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

The line strikes me as an exceptionally poignant moment in the newly released “Restored Edition” of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s fictionalized memoir of life in Paris in the early 1920s.

And, as is typical of Hemingway, you may find much below the surface of the sentence to ponder. Which has been tampered with—his heart or his memory?—and which no longer exists?

It’s April 1961. Hemingway a few months earlier had undergone electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Soon he’d attempt suicide, and less than three months after writing that last paragraph, he would succeed in the act, dying of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.

If anything, as he wrote it in the last years of his life, drawing from notebooks that had been stashed in a Paris hotel for 30 years, A Moveable Feast was an attempt to revel again in youthful happiness.

Since its publication 45 years ago, Hemingway’s Moveable Feast has been heralded as one of the great literary memoirs. Exaggerated and acidly dismissive of onetime friends, the book carries an overriding spirit of a 20-something artist in love with his wife, Hadley, and finding himself in the creative cauldron and vivacious cafes of post-World War I Paris.

Now comes a new edition of the book, endorsed by Hemingway’s son Patrick and edited by a grandson, Sean Hemingway, who is a curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and editor of two previous collections of Hemingway material (on war and on hunting).

In his introduction, Sean Hemingway argues that this new edition is truer to Hemingway’s intentions, given that it’s “based on a typed manuscript with original notations in Hemingway’s hand—the last draft of the last book that he ever worked on.”

For its first publication in 1964, Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, edited the manuscript along with Harry Brague of Hemingway’s longtime publishing house, Scribner.

Mary Hemingway has been long criticized by scholars for what they consider some heavy-handed preparation of the original Moveable Feast. But, as she wrote in 1964, editing is something “even the most meticulous manuscripts require.”

Sean Hemingway agrees with scholars that decisions made in compiling the original book were questionable. Now he is likely to face a barrage of criticism for creating this alternate version of what has become, despite its possible flaws, a comfortable favorite. Charles Scribner III, scion of the house that, like Hemingway’s heirs, made a fortune on Hemingway, weighed in recently in a letter to The New York Times. “I am sure,” Scribner wrote, “that the new edition will be of passing interest to scholars and students, but there is no doubt in my mind that Hemingway would not approve of the deconstruction of his classic.” Scribner reminded readers that Mary and his father, Charles Scribner II, who was editor and publisher when A Moveable Feast first appeared, “knew the author intimately; his grandson, the new editor, did not.”

Adds Susan Beegel, author of a forthcoming Hemingway biography and editor of the scholarly journal The Hemingway Review: “Of all the posthumous books, the original edition of ‘Feast’ is closest to canonical … and it was edited by people who discussed the manuscript with him.”

So, let the bullfight begin.

New Hemingway readers no doubt will wonder about the fuss. They may well enjoy discovering through this edition Hemingway’s Paris and getting to know the likes of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald through his eyes.

Nevertheless they might be confused by the variations, repetitions and intentions of a large amount of previously unpublished material, which is packaged in supplementary sections at the end of the revised edition.

After the main body of the book, the “Restored Edition” presents a set of longer pieces categorized as “Additional Paris Sketches” and a shorter group of “Fragments.” All of this comes from the invaluable archive of Hemingway manuscripts housed at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

The extra Paris sketches include a few variants on chapters included in the original book.

But they also contain some whole pieces that will be new to any previous general reader of A Moveable Feast. As Mary Hemingway once indicated, her husband planned to produce a second volume of Feast sketches, and here is where the real “new stuff” happens in this book.

Among those new chapters are a charming close-up portrait of Hemingway and Hadley’s toddler son, John, known by his nickname Bumby (“The Education of Mr. Bumby”); a solid boxing story (“A Strange Fight Club”); and another short sketch involving Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, this one back in the States, after Hemingway’s divorce from Hadley and marriage to his second wife, Pauline (“Scott and His Parisian Chauffeur”).

There also are echoes of other Hemingway works in this manuscript section.

One called “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” is a variant on the original book’s closing chapter as well as the new book’s “Winters in Schruns.” But it also includes Hemingway’s observation, while writing about skiing, that “maybe it is easier in the end to break your legs than to break your heart although they say that everything breaks now and that sometimes, afterwards, many are stronger at the broken places.” Readers of A Farewell to Arms, another product of the 1920s, will recognize that phrase—“stronger at the broken places”—as one of the central insights of Hemingway’s World War I novel.

Another new sketch, “Secret Pleasures,” prefigures the hair fetishes and bisexual escapades of Hemingway’s posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden. And the group of new sketches closes with one titled “Nada y Pues Nada,” an existential phrase Hemingway used to great effect when spoken by a weary waiter in the story “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

Sean Hemingway recognizes that chapter draft as “the last demonstrable sustained piece of writing that Hemingway did for the book,” and the new book reproduces the handwritten manuscript page containing its last paragraph. This is the section that ends with Hemingway’s lament over the tampering done to his memory (and/or heart).

So, yes, there are many rich and moving attractions here.

But it does an absent author no great service to be so faithful to a “final draft” that you end up with blanks and senselessness where words could be. In a passage about horse racing in the main body of the book, the “Restored Edition” serves up the following:

“My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was a hundred and twenty to one and leading by twenty lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to———. We tried never to think to do what. We were ahead on that year but Chevre d’Or would have———. We didn’t think about Chevre d’Or.”

Say what?

In the original edition, Mary Hemingway must have drawn on another draft of the chapter to provide meaning to this paragraph and certainly she got closer to what Hemingway envisioned in a finished book:

“My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was a hundred and twenty to one and leading by twenty lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us six months. We tried never to think of that. We were ahead on that year until Chevre d’Or.”

The “restored” Chevre d’Or blanks are the only such occurrence that I noticed in the main body of the new edition of Feast. So it’s a small thing. Still…

One of the most significant alterations involves the ending.

The 1964 edition closes with a chapter titled “There Is Never Any End to Paris.” In it, Hemingway reiterates his love for Hadley—“I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” There’s an allusion to the affair with Pauline (Sean Hemingway’s grandmother) that in 1926 broke up the idyllic life with Hadley. Then Hemingway closes on the wistful note that all that came before in this book reflected “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Disingenuous or not, there’s a sense of closure there that, I suspect, most readers appreciate.

Sean Hemingway’s new edition tucks a variant draft of that chapter, now called “Winters in Schruns,” farther up in the book, just ahead of the long-familiar three-part portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so its effect seems diffuse.

There may be a valid chronological reason for closing the book with Hemingway’s reflections on Fitzgerald, but the final, sendoff tone is far less effective or emotion-stirring than the original. Hemingway never came up with a satisfactory ending for the book, his grandson says.

“Although this manuscript lacks a final chapter,” Sean Hemingway writes in the introduction, “I believe that it provides a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.”

Part of the debate—better left to the scholarly analyses that are sure to follow—involves who did what to whom in the complicated affairs of the heart that erupted throughout Hemingway’s life and work. General readers are unlikely to care about that. And they are likely to want their old “Feast” back intact, cherished, perhaps, like an old blanket.

This edition ends with a short section of fragments, paragraph upon repetitive paragraph by a writer who seems lost, unable to find his way to clarity. This may be remarkable to some. But it reminds me of those historic compilations of jazz recordings that painstakingly gather alternate takes of songs, no matter how subtle the differences. Only an obsessive comma counter could find this material useful or revealing of something we didn’t already know: At the end, Hemingway—whose art and reputation were already well-established—was in trouble. And no amount of tampering, then, as now, could help.