That’s seemingly always been true. But why a 51-year-old book, written about the Paris of nearly a century ago, appears to resonate among Parisians in the wake of its worst loss of life since World War II is another question.
In his glowing review of A Moveable Feast in The Atlantic in 1964, Alfred Kazin alludes to Hemingway’s depictions of the glories of the city writ large, but also anoints its place as muse for a striving 22-year-old ex-pat finding his way into writing.
But this is Paris in the early twenties, the best place in the world to live and work, for the French have a way of life into which all needs easily fit, as they have cafés where a young fellow can sit for hours over a café crème and write “Up In Michigan.”
Kazin concludes that Paris, as a setting for Hemingway, is one that he “never handled more suavely and lyrically than he did in this book.”
It’s the life of the café culture and Paris as locus for the exchange of ideas that are particularly worth celebrating as the city rebounds from attacks on its restaurants and nightlife. This is what Hemingway observes in A Moveable Feast; it’s not war or bullfighting in Spain or hunting in Africa or swordfishing or boxing, but glamor of the quotidian in the City of Light.
Spanier describes a section in the book where Hemingway walks down the steps near the Île de la Cité to watch fisherman cast their lines into the Seine. Beside all the art and history, beneath the Pont Neuf and a statue of Henri Quatre, is everyday life with expertly caught fish. “They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”
With the tide of tributes from afar this month, Parisians have seen the love of their city reflected again through the eyes of outsiders. “Maybe they appreciate the fact that Paris is appreciated by non-Parisians,” Spanier concludes. “Hemingway certainly expressed that in a way that has transcended time.”
The late Christopher Hitchens probably would have agreed. Writing in The Atlantic back in 2009, Hitchens described the book as both “an ur-text of the American enthrallment with Paris” and “a skeleton key to the American literary fascination with Paris.” Hitchens also praised the book for bestowing advice on writing for young practitioners just starting out. (In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Daniel Woodrell vigorously agreed.)
But, given what’s happened in Paris this year, Hitchens’s central point about the endurance of A Moveable Feast is now accompanied by a gut-punch—what Hemingway was celebrating of the city and of himself at a young age are triumphs lost to time.
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.
Parisians would likely scoff at that assessment. After all, part of what attaches Hemingway to this moment is the symbolic and defiant heft of the French-language title of A Moveable Feast—Paris Est Une Fête. Translated back into English, A Moveable Feast becomes Paris Is a Celebration. In the days following the attacks, the French title of the book became a trending hashtag on Twitter.