“I’m very hungry,” I said.
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (1964)
Published posthumously, Hemingway’s brief memoir of expat life in 1920s Paris is so popular that in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” the stoner duo meet a prostitute named “Tits Hemingway” who explains that she got her name because “I have huge tits and my favorite book is A Moveable Feast.”
Although the dialog is intended to be absurd, juxtaposing the crassness of the woman’s enormous implants against her highbrow taste in literature, I don’t think that the book is entirely out of place in a whorehouse. A Moveable Feast is a book that seduces readers through its depiction of sensual pleasures. True, Hemingway is far less explicit about sex than about eating. He leaves the light out when describing the “happy” nights he spent with first wife Hadley. But there’s an erotic undertone to many of the sharply illuminated accounts of the meals he enjoyed during daytime, especially those involving oysters. Hemingway loves to describe himself nose-first in an oyster shell “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste.” He revels in how “the unbelievably delicate brown edges” of the briny creatures cringe under the squeeze of a lemon.
A Moveable Feast could be renamed “A Portrait of the Artist as a Hungry Young Man.” Hemingway writes about eating mandarins and roasted chestnuts in his writing garrett, then throwing the orange peels in the fire; drinking fruity liqueurs distilled from purple plums, yellow plums, and raspberries at Gertrude Stein’s salon; lunching on radishes, foie de veau with mashed potatoes, endive salad, and apple tart with Hadley; buying goujon, a Seine fish that was “delicious fried whole … plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even”; wolfing down bowls of pomme à l’huile then soaking up the left over olive oil with peasant bread; and sharing the famous Lyon-area chicken, poulet de bresse, with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not to mention the oysters.
Some have labeled A Moveable Feast food porn (back to the whorehouse here). But Hemingway is not just writing from the stomach. Hunger serves as the central metaphor in his memoir for his youthful desire to consume life. He arrived in Paris at age twenty-two, with a voracious appetite for experience, a yawning sense of emptiness that he filled with words, wine, women, and food. “I was always hungry,” he recalls.
Following one adventure, his wife, eight years his elder, sagely explains to him that “there are so many sorts of hunger.” Sometimes the empty feeling can’t be filled by a meal. “Memory is hunger,” Hadley tells him – although I wonder if Hemingway is ventriloquizing here, speaking to his younger self from his own more mature perspective, thirty-five years later. As the book’s epigraph explains, “Paris is a moveable feast,” that “stays with you” forever. Sitting at his writing desk in Cuba in the fall of 1957, Hemingway is still ravenous for the experiences he had as a young man. Back to the 1920s, young Hemingway doesn’t accept Hadley’s explanation of the different types of hunger. Gazing in the window of Michaud’s, a fancy restaurant frequented by James Joyce and his family, Hemingway sees “two tournedos being served” and feels persuaded that his hunger is for food. He and Hadley decide to splurge on a lovely meal, but later on the bus ride home Hemingway realizes that his hunger hasn’t gone away. Even after Hadley and he make “love in the dark,” Hemingway still feels hungry.
That hunger is a positive creative force, according to A Moveable Feast. Sometimes Hemingway skips meals and goes to look at the Cezannes hanging in the Musée Luxembourg, or the photos on the walls of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore “Shakespeare and Company.” Hunger sharpens his perceptions, opening his eyes to new sights. As a “natural heavyweight,” Hemingway feels hunger gnawing away at his stomach when he skips a meal. He’s not like one of his acquaintances, the poet Ralph Cheever Dunning, who smokes too much opium and forgets to eat. When Hemingway goes without, hunger haunts him.
Hemingway’s critics are grated by the writer’s account of himself as a starving young artist. He and Hadley were never so poor as the book suggests. He didn’t have to go without meals. The older Hemingway is just indulging in the self-mythologization that characterizes too much of his work. I understand this critique, I’ve always found Hemingway suspect, too macho, too full of himself (as Zelda Fitzgerald supposedly said to him: “no one is as masculine as you pretend to be”). But I believe in the honesty of his account of wandering hungry through the streets of Paris. As much as I enjoy my food, and have always had a healthy appetite, more than once some peculiar combination of frugality and choosiness has led me to pass a day without filling the emptiness in my stomach. I recognize that lightheaded otherworldly feeling that can cast the world in a new light, and illuminate beauty where you didn’t see it before.
The fact that so many readers can identify with Hemingway’s hunger for experience has made A Moveable Feast a popular favorite book ever since its publication. I first heard of the book during my late teens from a friend who swore by it as his favorite. The nostalgic longing or hunger for recapitulation that the book inspires in so many readers drives the plot in Woody Allen’s popular 2011 film “Midnight in Paris.” Poor Gil Pender wishes he could discover himself as a writer within the artistic milieu of Montparnasse in the 20s, but his fiancée and her mother can only relate to the past through materialistic desire. They drag him along when they go shopping for antiques at the Marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen, but laugh at his desire to travel back in time and commune with the objects’ original owners. When I watched the movie, I never figured out why Gil had gotten involved with such an unsympathetic character in the first place. Considering how many women share Tits Hemingway’s opinion, Gil could have chosen better. While I’m at it, he didn’t need to travel in a magic Peugeot to visit Hemingway’s old haunts. Most of the places mentioned in A Moveable Feast are still open for business and welcome tourists who are following the Hemingway trail. La Closerie des Lilias, Michaud’s, Le Select, Les Deux Magots, take your pick.
On that note, I’m heading out for a half dozen oysters and a glass of wine. Or if I want to be more Hemingway about it, two dozen oysters and a bottle of white.