Thomas Gagen

Don’t mess with this Hemingway

By Thomas Gagen
July 10, 2009
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BY THE time he died in 1961, Ernest Hemingway had become a self-caricature, drunken, irascible, overbearing, embarrassing his fourth wife by infatuations with young protégés. Three years later, Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house delighted Hemingway enthusiasts by presenting them with “A Moveable Feast,’’ a memoir of his life as a writer in 1920s Paris. Scribner, as it is now called, will release a “restored’’ version on Tuesday, but having re-read the original last week, I wonder why anyone would want to tamper with this classic.

In his memoir, Hemingway offered sketches of Gertrude Stein (“She reminded me of a northern Italian peasant woman’’), Ezra Pound (“the most generous writer I have ever known’’), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty’’), Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda (“hawk’s eyes with a thin month and deep-South manners’’), and Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley (“her smile lighted up at decisions as though they were rich presents.’’)

He described the Left Bank, where he and Hadley lived, the ambiance of the cafes, winter-long ski vacations in Austria, and work habits - “so finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there’’ - as he painstakingly crafted the short stories that would become his first significant achievement. “A Moveable Feast’’ deserves to be considered along with the short stories and the novel “A Farewell to Arms’’ as his most satisfying work.

“A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition’’ was edited by Hemingway’s grandson Sean, with a forward by Patrick Hemingway, his only surviving son. It includes nine chapters left out of the 1964 edition, and a revised ending to explain how Hemingway’s idyll in Paris ended with the breakup of his marriage to Hadley. Based on an excerpt from the last chapter, published in The New York Times, it appears the revision is intended to settle old family scores rather than to advance Hemingway’s reputation or enhance a reader’s pleasure.

In the original, brutally terse conclusion to “A Moveable Feast,’’ Hemingway is finishing up his breakthrough novel “The Sun Also Rises’’ when wealthy people, sensing he is about to become famous, enter his life. One of them, Pauline Pfeiffer, befriends Hadley, only to become attracted to Hemingway and eventually destroy the marriage.

Pauline became Hemingway’s second wife and is Patrick’s mother and Sean’s grandmother. No wonder her relatives wanted to soften the criticism of a woman who, in Hemingway’s words, “using the oldest trick there is,’’ infiltrated and destroyed a happy family. The restored version pins more of the blame on Hemingway, but it is longer and rambling, as befits someone who is ambivalent about criticizing Pauline, whom he once loved.

Sean and Patrick think that is the way Hemingway would have wanted it, but who’s to know how he would have shaped the manuscript had his literary sensibilities been at their most acute. Toward the end of his life he was suffering from intense depression, forcing him to undergo shock therapy at the Mayo Clinic.

He committed suicide in 1961. Mary Hemingway, his fourth wife, and Harry Brague, his editor at Scribner’s, prepared the book for publication. Sean contends they used various drafts and scraps of manuscripts. He contends they got the title from a remark Hemingway made to a friend. Hemingway’s working title for the book was “The Early Eye and The Ear (How Paris Was in the Early Days),’’ a clunker that doesn’t suggest sound editorial judgment.

Mary Hemingway, at the time of publication, acknowledged that she cut the text and rearranged some sections, but she said, “No one added any word to the book.’’ She and Brague made the tough editing decisions that Hemingway could not bring himself to do while he lived. And the original ending fits better with the rest of the book, where he portrays himself as a sympathetic figure and astute judge of character.

In the 1964 edition, Hemingway describes the moment of crisis in the three-sided relationship. “I did my business in New York and when I got back to Paris I should have caught the first train from the Gard de l’Est that would take me down to Austria. But the girl I was in love with was in Paris then, and I did not take the first train, or the second or the third.’’ Those last few words are omitted from the new edition even though they are from one of those “true sentences’’ that show Hemingway at his best.

I’ve got to confess that I’ve ordered a copy of the “Restored Edition.’’ I can’t resist reading the parts that Mary Hemingway and Brague omitted. But if I were coming to the book for the first time, I’d find a copy of the original, which Scribner is keeping in print, and, through its tight and vivid prose, stroll the byways and frequent the cafes that delighted Hemingway. “Paris,’’ he writes truly, “was always worth it.’’

Thomas Gagen, who was chief editorial writer for the Globe, is a freelance writer.

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