A Moveable Feast chronicles an early stage in Hemingway’s career as a writer, highlighting how his life in the creative and intellectual community of Paris helped shape the development of his craft. The act of writing features prominently in the book, with many scenes of Hemingway inventing and revising stories, writing in cafés, and receiving constructive criticism from his peers. The book can thus be thought of as a metanarrative, meaning that Hemingway draws attention to the process of storytelling within the story itself. At several points Hemingway mentions parts of his life that he chose to omit from the book, and he includes reflections on the (un)reliability of memory—one of the most important themes in the construction of autobiography.
Unlike many autobiographies that describe the process of creating art, A Moveable Feast does not overemphasize the challenging or painful side of writing, nor glorify it to the status of a sacred endeavour. Indeed, the idea of artists as tortured geniuses who produce work through mystical flashes of inspiration was rooted in the 19th century (and in Romanticism in particular). Hemingway’s disdain for this view of writing is humorously conveyed in his statement: “Creation's probably overrated. After all, God made the world in only six days and rested on the seventh." Indeed, Hemingway and others writing in the Modernist era rejected the romanticized, dramatic view of artistic creation, and instead they emphasized conscious skill, deliberate experimentation, and (especially in Hemingway’s case) a simple, pragmatic approach to writing. This is reflected in the scene in which Hemingway looks over the Parisian skyline and tells himself: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.” However, this casual confidence is arguably undermined by other scenes in the book that do associate the process of creation with pain and turmoil. This is perhaps most strongly evidenced by the fact that most of the writers in the book compose their work in varying states of drunkenness.
The book is set at a time of formidable artistic creation and innovation, and Hemingway’s writing is shown not to occur in a vacuum but rather within a community of artists. He mentions many of these figures by name, and records the details of even the most ordinary, practical aspects of consuming art, such as finding cheap English-language books in Paris. It is obvious that Hemingway values the opportunity to be surrounded by other artists and their work, a feeling that is shared by the people around him. Hemingway discovers new authors to read through his friends, and Gertrude Stein suggests that he avoid spending any money on clothes in order to have enough to buy paintings. When Hemingway confesses that even if he spent no money at all on clothing he would still not be able to afford a Picasso, Stein replies that this doesn’t matter—he should “buy the people of your age.” Owning and consuming art is thus seen as a valuable thing in its own right, rather than as a means of showing off wealth and status. Furthermore, Stein encourages Hemingway to think of himself as part of a “generation” of other artists with whom his own work is in dialog.
Critique is shown to be a crucial part of the process of creation in the book. Although Hemingway seems to hold a rather disdainful view of professional critics (“if you can't write why don't you learn to write criticism?”), he and the writers he is friends with regularly exchange critical thoughts on each other’s work. Hemingway himself takes a somewhat harsh view on other people’s writing, although when critiquing the work of his friends this harshness at least has a constructive edge. (His response to reading The Great Gatsby, for example, is that “if he [Scott] could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one.”) However, while Hemingway clearly desires admiration from those who read his work, he is deeply embarrassed when anyone expresses this to his face, even claiming that to hear such praise makes him “feel sick.” The book thus explores the complex and hazardous ways in which ego is implicated in the act of creation, a fact that arguably prohibits the existence of a truly collaborative, mutually supportive artistic community.
Creation vs. Critique ThemeTracker
Creation vs. Critique Quotes in A Moveable Feast
I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
"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." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
I knew how severe I had been and how bad things had been. The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty is hard on. I thought of bathtubs and showers and toilets that flushed as things that inferior people to us had or that you enjoyed when you made trips, which we often made.
In the three or four years that we were good friends I can not remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald. When I first met her she did not speak of Sherwood Anderson as a writer but spoke glowingly of him as a man and of his great, beautiful, warm Italian eyes and of his kindness and his charm. I did not care about his great beautiful warm Italian eyes but I liked some of his short stories very much.
She was angry at Ezra Pound because he had sat down too quickly on a small, fragile and, doubtless, uncomfortable chair, that it is quite possible he had been given on purpose, and had either cracked or broken it. That finished Ezra at 27 rue de Fleurus. That he was a great poet and a gentle and generous man and could have accommodated himself in a normal-size chair was not considered. The reasons for her dislike of Ezra, skillfully and maliciously put, were invented years later.
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. Then you were skipping meals at a time when you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to do it was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought it was possibly only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cezanne was probably hungry in a different way.
Outside on the rue de l’Odeon I was disgusted with myself for having complained about things. I was doing what I did of my own free will and I was doing it stupidly. I should have bought a large piece of bread and eaten it instead of skipping a meal. I could taste the brown lovely crust. But it is dry in your mouth without something to drink. You God damn complainer. You dirty phony saint and martyr, I said to myself. You quit journalism of your own accord. You have credit and Sylvia would have loaned you money. She has plenty of times. Sure. And then the next thing you would be compromising on something else. Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry. Eating is wonderful too and do you know where you are going to eat right now?
Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people. The studio where he lived with his wife Dorothy on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs was as poor as Gertrude Stein's studio was rich. It had very good light and was heated by a stove and it had paintings by Japanese artists that Ezra knew. They were all noblemen where they came from and wore their hair cut long. Their hair glistened black and swung forward when they bowed and I was very impressed by them but I did not like their paintings. I did not understand them but they did not have any mystery, and when I understood them they meant nothing to me. I was sorry about this but there was nothing I could do about it.
The way it ended with Gertrude Stein was strange enough. We had become very good friends and I had done a number of practical things for her such as getting her long book started as a serial with Ford and helping type the manuscript and reading her proof and we were getting to be better friends than I could ever wish to be. There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.
The winter of the avalanches was like a happy and innocent winter in childhood compared to that winter and the murderous summer that was to follow. Hadley and I had become too confident in each other and careless in our confidence and pride. In the mechanics of how this was penetrated I have never tried to apportion the blame, except my own part, and that was clearer all my life. The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book. I wrote it and left it out. It is a complicated, valuable and instructive story.
Until then I had felt that what a great writer I was had been carefully kept secret between myself and my wife and only those people we knew well enough to speak to. I was glad Scott had come to the same happy conclusion as to this possible greatness, but I was also glad he was beginning to run out of the speech.
He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew. But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not. If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. But we were to find them out soon enough.
Everyone had their private cafés there where they never invited anyone and would go to work, or to read or to receive their mail. They had other cafés where they would meet their mistresses and almost everyone had another café, a neutral café, where they might invite you to meet their mistress and there were regular, convenient, cheap dining places where everyone might eat on neutral ground.