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A Moveable Feast | Themes

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A Writer's Career Development

The book chronicles Ernest Hemingway's growth from an up-and-coming writer to a major force in the literary world.

Hemingway perfects his writing style in Paris, and the book includes the tricks and techniques he learns along the way. In "A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel," Hemingway discusses the power of "transplanting yourself" in order to write about a faraway setting with perspective. He stops his day's work before he "[empties] the well" so he can reflect on his ideas overnight. He learns how to be his own editor, omitting good passages if the omission would "strengthen the story."

Learning the different techniques of other writers shapes Hemingway, teaching him what to adopt and what to avoid. Ezra Pound teaches Hemingway to search for the "mot juste," or right word. F. Scott Fitzgerald has a patented technique to make his fiction marketable, which Hemingway dislikes, because he admires Fitzgerald's work as it is. Gertrude Stein and the New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner introduce Hemingway to writers he's never heard of. The author Hemingway, older and wiser, demonstrates how the young protagonist Hemingway learned his signature writing style—direct, clear, and descriptive—by showing the author finding his voice in Paris, a place of great artistic activity.

Modernism in Literary Postwar Paris

The parade of writers featured in the book, known as the Lost Generation, were often affiliated with the broad literary movement of modernism. Modernism arose at the beginning of the 20th century and involved rejecting the norms of 19th-century literature in favor of new modes of storytelling. Famous modernists, including Stein, Pound, and Joyce, experimented with novel forms of writing. Pound introduced imagism, a poetry technique devoted to "clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images." He famously gave writers the advice to "make it new!" Joyce became a pioneer in stream-of-consciousness writing, a form of narration showing the flow of a character's thoughts. Writers who had endured the chaos and destruction of World War I felt an urge to find new uses of language to match the world's changed reality.

Hemingway's style of writing affects his way of interacting with the world; he sees his work and the world through a modernist lens. Pound teaches him "to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people." He is critical of Hadley's favorite writer, Henry James, a late 19th- and early 20th-century author with a more traditional style characterized by long sentences and extensive detail. As Hemingway learns to be a modernist, he develops a shrewd and skeptical outlook and an appreciation for radical literary experimentation, such as the works of Pound and Joyce.

Wealth and Poverty

Hemingway's routine and character development are shaped through his poverty at the time. Paris, he emphasizes, is a city where a struggling writer can live a good life cheaply because the city has so much to offer. But he is surrounded by rich Parisians as well. The extremes of poverty and wealth on display in Paris influence Hemingway's outlook on the city.

As Hemingway and his fellow writers cultivate the bohemian lifestyle, they choose certain purchases to reflect their priorities. Stein advises Hemingway to "pay no attention to your clothes" and save up to buy paintings. To afford travel and entertainment, Hemingway lives in a small apartment with no indoor plumbing. His poverty becomes part of his Paris experience and strengthens his resolve. Meanwhile, the "rich" corrupt his peaceful life, and he eventually succeeds in writing about them. In "The Pilot Fish and the Rich," Hemingway describes wealthy patrons of a ski resort taking advantage of his friendship, with devastating results.

Physical and Mental Illness

Many characters' lives in A Moveable Feast are affected by illness. Two writers, Ernest Walsh and F. Scott Fitzgerald, appear to Hemingway to be "marked for death." Walsh suffers from consumption (likely tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease), and Fitzgerald from alcoholism. The painter Jules Pascin, with whom Hemingway spends time in "With Pascin at the Dôme," will later hang himself. Poet Ralph Cheever Dunning is severely ill, and Walsh calls Joyce's blindness "the tragedy of our time." Hemingway takes Joyce's blindness in stride, saying, "Everybody has something wrong with them." Though Hemingway doesn't know her well, he alludes to Zelda Fitzgerald's mental illness and its impact on her husband. Hemingway explores the effect chronic illness has on a writer's cultivated persona and reputation and on the writer's work itself.

While all writers featured in the book were affected by World War I, those who fought or served in the war knew a different kind of trauma. In "Ford Madox Ford and the Devil's Disciple," Hemingway describes the war veterans recovering from loss of limbs. At several instances Hemingway goes into his personal memories of war deaths.

The book foreshadows Hemingway's own depression toward the end of his life. As he writes, he knows the happy years in Paris will come to a bitter end. The final sketch, "Nada y Pues Nada," contends directly with Hemingway's melancholy and desire to leave a legacy, such as when he faces the death of Evan Shipman.

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