A Moveable Feast

On my bedside table is a stack of mysteries, with my current read being Linda Barnes’ The Perfect Ghost, a well-done psychological thriller. But the audiobook in my car is, for a change, not a mystery, but a memoir: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, published posthumously. The book follows Hemingway’s years in Paris in the 1920s and dishes dirt on the expat writers and artists with which he was acquainted. The book is interesting for that peek into society.

moveableBut the “restored edition,” published in 2009, is also fascinating for the family politics that shape it and for the word choices between the two editions, which in at least one place changes the spirit of a phrase. The first edition was published by Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, three years after Hemingway’s death. The latest edition was re-edited and published by Seán Hemingway, his grandson (with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer). New material is included in the second edition. There’s been controversy over some of the changes, with critics saying Seán has sought to cast Pauline in a better light (Hemingway’s affair with Pauline ended his first marriage to Hadley).

But, as someone who works with words, what is most interesting to me are the word choices, very deliberately selected. Hemingway had several drafts of his work and, in at least one part, Mary Hemingway went with an earlier draft for a description of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here are the two versions (first, the original; second, the restored edition):

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

 

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.”

Obviously, the second description is much kinder to Fitzgerald. Seán Hemingway calls the original edit “egregious” and “unwarranted.” Not having Mary’s point of view, we can’t understand her choice, but it does make one wonder.

One also wonders what Hemingway would have thought of the book—and the title. He was near enough to finishing the book to have come up with titles, most of them bad: Good Nails are Made of Iron or Some People and The Places, for instance. The working title was The Early Eye and The Ear.

But Mary Hemingway settled on A Moveable Feast, suggested to her by novelist and editor E.A. Hotchner, who said Hemingway had mentioned the phrase to him in Paris. But even the inclusion of “e” in “moveable,” is thought out. It was a quirk of Hemingway to retain the “e” in words formed by verbs that ended in “e.” It also, Seán writes, “makes a pleasant visual repetition with the “ea” in Feast.”

We’ll never know which edition of A Moveable Feast Hemingway himself would have preferred – if either. But, for the reader, having two editions is a feast – more material to read.

One thought on “A Moveable Feast

  1. Thanks for the review of Hemingway’s posthumous novel. I have not read it yet and it is interesting to note the differences between the original version and the re-release. Although it is only the last sentence that is changed, it changes the whole meaning of the passage from negative to positive.

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