June 26, 2012
Admittedly, in many areas but especially when it comes to reading, I’m a peculiar sort. Seldom am I able to just pick up a book and, over time, read it from front to back without something in the text triggering additional volumes to be brought into play.
The current case-in-point might have begun, I suppose, while I was killing time in a Salt Lake bookstore a couple of weeks back. I had assembled a fistful of interesting titles in rather quick fashion before whittling it down to one: the "restored edition" of Ernest Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast."
Come to think of it, the actual genesis most likely occurred back in the day when I picked up a copy of the original version of the book during a stopover at the Atlanta airport on my way home to L.A following my discharge from the service.
Flying was different back then. I still had turbo-prop stops in New Orleans and Dallas and Albuquerque and Las Vegas during which to kill time with a book prior to finally disembarking into the photo-electric dusk of the City of Angels.
As it turned out, it took a few more months to finish it, not because I wasn’t completely enthralled with Hem’s stories of Paris in the ’20s with Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and the rest, but because the big city was serving up too many moveable feasts of its own in those days.
Fast-forwarding to 2009, the publication by Hemingway’s grandson Sean of the aforementioned "restored edition" arrives in bookstores amid much hoopla and brouhaha.
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The hoopla emerged from the always efficient PR arm of Charles Scribners Sons, longtime publishers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The brouhaha erupted when longtime Hemingway friend A. E. Hotchner submitted an op-ed piece entitled "Don’t touch ‘A Moveable Feast’" to the New York Times.
Attempting to debunk the younger Hemingway’s assertion that the original book had been edited with a negative agenda by Hem’s fourth and final wife, Mary, Hotchner railed against what he saw as revisionist tampering with a "finished" work by the master. (Sean’s grandmother was Pauline, Hem’s second spouse.)
Suffice to say that his efforts put me off the "restored edition" and I never read it. Until now, that is. A true Hemingway junkie can’t withstand the "jones" indefinitely. And anyway, no matter which volume might have most approached Hem’s original intention, I reasoned that yet another immersion in his Paris stories would be all upside.
So, once again, after many intervening years, I got transported back to Ernest and Hadley’s meager digs on the Left Bank amid the cafés and neighborhood markets of 1920s Paris. From Sylvia Beach’s "Shakespeare and Company" bookstore to Gertrude Stein’s salon, the déjà vu was overwhelming.
Of course, to really get in the mood, I had to dive into the New York Times digital archives and reread Hotchner’s op-ed piece. Not that I truly believe either his version or Sean’s "restored" version or, for that matter, even Hemingway-the-elder’s own version of what actually went down during those extremely seminal years in modernist literature.
Soon, various references in the text of "A Moveable Feast" prompt such volumes as "The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway," "The Sun Also Rises," "The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald," "The Great Gatsby," and "The Paris Years," the second volume of Michael Reynolds five-volume Hemingway biography, to topple off one or another of my bookshelves and join the now nearly two-week-old-feast.
When, in "A Moveable Feast," Hem begins scribbling the start of "Big Two-Hearted River" during the Paris spring of 1924, I immediately grab the "short stories" and reread it. And when his protagonist Nick Adams first stepped into the stream, "the water was a rising cold shock," I felt it. Nick watched the trout "as they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again." It’s 1919 in the upper peninsula of Michigan and life is good.
It’s always this way when you get into Hemingway, whether it’s his own work or biographical incursions by others. There is much more depth than surface. It’s bottomless. Angles of repose don’t possess the friction necessary to survive. One thing leads to another and veracity of style over storyline, in the mind of most readers, trumps all else.
The short, clean, declarative prose rivets you in place. As Hem once said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.