Book of a Lifetime: A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s, and I read it while I was living in Paris in my twenties. It is a short, perfect book. Hemingway wrote it when he was a successful man, about the experience of being a young man, who was not yet successful, but who was writing and happy and in love with his wife. It is very personal but in the most generous way, and when you read it you're not observing self-indulgence.

The book is written with an almost miraculous and entirely deceptive simplicity. He talks about the weather and boulevards and different places that he lived. He talks about things that he ate and days spent working, or eating lunch in cafés, and the people that he met, and at first you can be fooled into thinking it's just a little book about Paris. Except then, of course, even as he makes you see the pavements being washed down outside the cafés of Saint Germain in the early morning, or taste the olive oil on a potato salad he had with a cold beer after being hungry for two days, because he hadn't the money for lunch – even as he pins you so beautifully into the moment, you realise he is writing about the exact and specific nature of love and loss, and about the passing of time, and every essential truth you can think of and some you haven't yet. Each word on the page is underpinned by 20 words omitted. It's breathtaking.

One chapter might be about visiting Gertrude Stein, immediately entertaining in its accurate and vaguely gossipy narrative, but then you see it's about the intricate power games that people play and the loss of a young man's innocence, and the experience of being part of the generation that fought in the First World War, both beholden to and angry with the generation that came before them. You see the perfect clarity of thought and genius of execution that he had, to do all that, over six pages, and move you to tears at the end of them. He does it in every chapter.

And of course it's also about writing. I think that A Moveable Feast taught me everything I know about writing, and I can't hope to attain everything it could teach me. There are lessons in the actual language, which is beautiful, and there are lessons in the insight into his writer's brain, and the understanding of the fragility of the balance between being able to do it, and not being able to do it. He is writing about the joy of getting it right, with all the unspoken knowledge of the sadness of getting it wrong, both in writing and life. He is a man looking back on the lightness of the past and, although he has the discipline never once to mention the present, A Moveable Feast is shadowed by it, and that makes it exquisite.

'The Outcast', by Sadie Jones, is published by Chatto & Windus