Hemingway's Libidinous Feast

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

By Christopher Hitchens

"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.)

I suppose that another way of betraying a friend of whom it’s thinkable that you were jealous, and who would, as it happens, do you the good turn of introducing you to an editor like Maxwell Perkins and a publisher like Scribner, would be to write about him thus:

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty [italics mine].

All right so far, perhaps, even with that emphasis noted, but then: “The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.” And this in the second paragraph of the first page of the chapter about his friend—the one he is later on bluffly cheering up about his sand-castle masculinity …

It might be trite to pick on the verb worried, but undue or conspicuous anxiety about such matters has been known to furnish a clue about the author himself, and Hemingway more or less forces one to contemplate this very contingency. The brilliance of the anecdote in “A Strange Enough Ending,” in which the author bids adieu to Gertrude Stein and her partner, is that it is almost the sound of the other shoe dropping after that rugged earlier moment in “Miss Stein Instructs,” in which Stein dismisses male homosexuality as truly and horribly unnatural. Hemingway writes,

I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever.

Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.”

As someone wrote about Dorothy Parker’s short story “Big Blonde,” the talent (I won’t say genius) here lies in getting the reader’s imagination to shoulder the bulk of the work. A pretty revenge, I dare say, if slightly and crudely rubbed in a few lines later when Miss Stein is described as resembling “a Roman emperor.”

And so to the excerpt that has continued to excite perhaps the most comment. Closing the original chapter in which Miss Stein expresses her loathing for male perversion, Hemingway writes that he went home to Hadley and “in the night we were happy with our own knowledge we already had and other new knowledge we had acquired in the mountains.” Read these words alongside the following lines originally excised from the restored chapter titled “Secret Pleasures”: “When we lived in Austria in the winter we would cut each other’s hair and let it grow to the same length.” Presuming these to have been the same mountains, or even perhaps assuming slightly different peaks, the whole concept of matching coiffure appears to Hemingway to have been almost unbearably exciting:

“If you don’t think about it maybe it will grow faster. I’m so glad you remembered to start it so early.”

We looked at each other and laughed and then she said one of the secret things …

“How long will it take?”

“Maybe four months to be just the same.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Four months more?”

“I think so.”

We sat and she said something secret and I said something secret back.

Gosh. And this, as some addicts will already know, is merely an amuse-bouche for the main course of another unfinished Hemingway effort, “The Garden of Eden,” at the end of which it seems that hair must be discarded altogether, and shaved heads become the sexual totem. Not even Adam and Eve went so far in their admission of guilt and nakedness, but perhaps a man whose mother once dressed him as a girl and trimmed his crop to suit, and crooned to him as “Ernestine,” had some old scores to settle in the androgyny column.

What is it exactly that explains the continued fascination of this rather slight book? Obviously, it is an ur-text of the American enthrallment with Paris. To be more precise, it is also a skeleton key to the American literary fascination with Paris (and contains some excellent tips for start-up writers, such as the advice to stop working while you still have something left to write the next day). There are the “wouldn’t be without, even if you don’t quite trust” glimpses of the magnetic Joyce and the personable Pound and the apparently wickedly malodorous Ford Madox Ford. Then there are the moments of amusingly uncynical honesty, as when Stein and Toklas met Ernest and Hadley and “forgave us for being in love and being married—time would fix that.” The continued currency of that useless expression the lost generation becomes even more inexplicable when it is traced to a stupid remark made by Gertrude Stein’s garage manager, and such quotable fatuity, however often consecrated by repeated usage, is always worth following to its source. Most of all, though, I believe that A Moveable Feast serves the purpose of a double nostalgia: our own as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave in a Paris where the tough and plebeian districts are gone, to be replaced by seething Muslim banlieues all around the periphery; and Hemingway’s at the end of his distraught days, as he saw again the “City of Light” with his remaining life still ahead of him rather than so far behind.

NB: This book is best read or reread in the company of a beautiful book of photographs and quotations: Hemingway’s Paris, edited by Robert Gajdusek and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1978.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/hemingways-libidinous-feast/307425/