Books June 2009

Hemingway's Libidinous Feast

In a restored edition of a great classic, sexual anxiety looms large.
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Lebrecht Authors

"For reasons sufficient to the writer,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in notes for a preface to his collection of about-to-be-posthumous Parisian fragments (a preface later pieced together by Mary Hemingway as if from Cuba in 1960), “many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book”:

There is no mention of the Stade Anastasie where the boxers served as waiters at the tables set out under the trees and the ring was in the garden. Nor of training with Larry Gains, nor the great twenty-round fights at the Cirque d’Hiver. Nor of such good friends as Charlie Sweeny, Bill Bird and Mike Strater … It would be fine if all these were in this book but we will have to do without them for now.

This tactic of teasing the customer with the hint of splendors withheld—like Dr. Watson’s making us wonder about the untold Holmes adventure of the giant rat of Sumatra—was rounded off with another piece of coquetry, when “Papa” closed by saying:

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.

This challenge may or may not have been intended as literal. But the first thing to say about the “restored” edition so ably and attractively produced by Patrick and Seán Hemingway is that it does live up to its billing, in that at last it gives us the Stade Anastasie and Larry Gains (a handsome black Canadian heavyweight now lost to history) and thus manages that fusion of food writing and pugilism that is somehow associated with Americans in Paris, and not just because of Papa and A. J. Liebling. The new story “A Strange Fight Club” is well worth having, too. It pictures Larry Gains’s Parisian opponent thus:

The new heavy weight was a local boy who had been employed carrying parts of carcasses in the stockyards until he had an accident which affected his reasoning power.

This capture of the elemental brutishness of boxing—and by one of its aficionados—does a good deal to reaffirm Hemingway’s sometimes mocked reputation as a master of the terse and muscular sentence.

There has always been much speculation about how much the redaction of A Moveable Feast is a product or consequence of its relation to the sequence of Hemingway’s marriages. It was largely written about his time with Hadley, touches on his defection to the arms of Pauline, and after his suicide was pasted together by Mary. If we make the common assumption that Mary desired to downplay her predecessors where possible (there is no way to write the lovely Hadley out of the script altogether), then this would furnish an explanation for the reappearance of two fragments in particular: the marvelous little study of Hemingway’s outings with his firstborn son, titled “The Education of Mr. Bumby,” and the intriguing episode “Secret Pleasures,” in which Hemingway writes with undisguised sexual excitement about the good and bad “hair days” that he shared with his first spouse.

The Bumby pages are frankly sentimental but nonetheless somehow dry, while the little boy’s attempts to be a man in two languages, and to keep up with his father’s enjoyment of café society, are simply charming. (Once you have heard the proprietress of Shakespeare and Company grandly referred to as “Silver Beach,” you are doomed to remember her that way. And you will perhaps also recall Bumby’s announcement of what he has learned from his nanny’s husband, Touton: “Tu sais, Papa, que les femmes pleurent comme les enfants pissent?” A different version of Papa, to be sure, but one worth having.)

Even in this record of spontaneous innocence, however, the chance is not missed to take another sidelong whack at Scott Fitzgerald:

“Monsieur Fitzgerald is sick Papa?”

“He is sick because he drinks too much and he cannot work.”

“Does he not respect his métier?”

“Madame his wife does not respect it or she is envious of it.”

“He should scold her.”

“It is not so simple.”

Again, there is nothing to complain of here in point of terseness and economy, but it sent me back again to that supremely unsatisfactory moment in the original collection, in the chapter titled “A Matter of Measurements,” when Fitzgerald invites Hemingway to lunch at Michaud’s restaurant and tells him:

“Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”

By his own account, Hemingway thereupon leads the author of The Diamond As Big As the Ritz out to the men’s room, conducts a brief inspection, and reassures (or, to be more exact, fails to reassure) his pal that all is well, and that he’s looking down on his penis, literally and figuratively, rather than taking the sidelong perspective. I have never trusted this story, if only because—as Hemingway himself later admits—“it is not basically a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes.” So, unless the viewing in the Michaud pissoir was of an engorged and distended “Scottie”—which it plainly was not—then Papa was offering Fitzgerald a surrogate form of consolation. And was then planning to write about it! (That Zelda was a lethal bitch who wanted her husband at least to fail and perhaps to die is for once not confirmed by another new inclusion, “Scott and His Parisian Chauffeur,” where she is pictured as behaving really quite gracefully under pressure and where the same Mike Strater whose absence was deplored in the original preface is also shown in a fairly good light on a train from Princeton to Philadelphia.)

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Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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