When I chanced upon Tobias Wolff’s Old School at the library, I had no idea that it was going to have a remarkable effect on my reading this year. Emerging from a fog of confused days and nights rolling into one another in the two darkest months of the year, I was more than prepared to be set down firmly on what promises to be a long, rewarding literary trail. I became enamoured of the Lost Generation in the way that I fell for Jack Kerouac, a famous thorn in tradition’s flesh, a few years ago.
I was intrigued when I read of the fascination for Hemingway – almost bordering on worship – among the boys in Wolff’s book, and the incredible manner in which it drove them to uncharacteristic behaviour. While Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, as visiting writers, spurred them on to an extent, the imminent arrival of Hemingway and the opportunity of winning an hour with him drew them out in a wholly different fashion. I knew little of Hemingway’s work or life when I read the book; apart from reading The Old Man and the Sea and the short story The Killers, I had never even attempted to read Hemingway. I put his books on my mental to-read lists, but never came around to actually buying or borrowing any. My interest was piqued by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and I believe it brought me a step closer, but I give most credit to Wolff for making me pick up A Moveable Feast at the library (perhaps you shouldn’t start with the memoirs, but oh well) and I now want to read everything Hemingway ever wrote – even, perhaps, his work on hunting.
A Moveable Feast is very sincere in its tone. Hemingway talks of his life in Paris of the 1920s: his friendship with Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald, his devotion to his wife, Hadley, and his ambition to write and be influenced by all that was great and beautiful in the city. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Baron von Blixen are briefly mentioned, as are the cafés , walks and bookshops he frequented; he describes ski holidays in Austria with Hadley and their son Bumby, and just as you begin to picture their bliss, he mentions his affair with another woman, which made the whole experience bittersweet for me. All the dissipation and abandon of Paris, then, had come to this and not to joyous, enduring years of writing and friendship. Disillusioning.
While I read, I didn’t realise that Hadley was the first of four wives, and that he had had to divorce her because of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. I don’t judge Hemingway, but I was saddened to learn that a love that he spoke so achingly and fondly of didn’t last. He rued it himself in very clear terms: “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” What was it that caused him to be so unhappy in his marriages, and to eventually take his own life? Why was marriage so important to him when he kept falling in and out of love so often – did it need that legal sanction that seemed to stifle him beyond a point?
Hemingway did come across as a very good friend, though. He seemed fiercely protective of Fitzgerald, and had no love lost for Zelda Fitzgerald, who he felt was driving her husband to drink and to lose interest in his work. He valued Pound’s opinions and respected Beach’s generosity and Stein’s authority. However, he did not exactly agree with the epithet of Lost Generation, a génération perdue, one that had served in the war and was now somehow given to dissolution: “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?…I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be…”
I can only attempt to piece together from different sources this life that intrigues me so, and I think the best place to start would be from the books of this expatriate circle that thrived in Paris and lived a culturally rich, if troubled, life. I always thought Paris would be an interesting city to visit, but now I have a real reason to see it. Uncannily enough, the signs are right here in Washington, DC, where I’m spending a few months. Pound, the poet with the rakish reputation and questionable political views, spent several years in St Elizabeths Hospital in the city before he was released after frantic lobbying from friends and supporters. Fitzgerald and Zelda lie buried in a churchyard at Rockville, Maryland, about an hour’s train ride away. It also turns out that Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key, a cousin on his father’s side and writer of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, who lived in the wonderfully quaint Georgetown area of DC. And finally, what to me is the most interesting connection – Hadley was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, which receives support from the proceeds of my favourite used book-store in DC. I’ll take these signs with pleasure and use them as an excuse (not that I really need one) to delve further into Hemingway’s books. This circle attracts me in a way that, I regret to say, even the Bloomsbury Group didn’t: I might save that for my later, more mature years.
I’ll leave you now with a picturesque description of Paris and the seasons – Hemingway writing in his typical pared-down style – that rings true in all its glorious simplicity: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river. With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only true sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.”