A Moveable Feast, and nostalgia for times never lived
Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast, beats writer’s block with a neat trick.
He tells himself to write just one true sentence.
Write the truest sentence you can, and then write another and another. And everything will flow from there.
That’s my kind of writing: I’m not about the fantasy. I’m about the truth. Even when the truth is gritty and ugly.
So here goes.
“I’m so lonely I want to scream. It’s worse than the normal kind of loneliness. It’s the loneliness of being lost in a crowd, cold, broke and far from almost everyone you know.”
Someday that might be the beginning of my memoir about life in Europe in the ever-more-vintage days of the early 2000s.
For now, though, let’s talk about Paris in the 1920s.
A Moveable Feast
Turns out this is Hemingway’s posthumously-published memoir of his youth in Paris.
I haven’t read much Hemingway, honestly. But here in Spain he’s someone people bring up a lot if you’re a guy like me.
“Oh, I see. American. Writer. In Spain. Just like Hemingway.”
I think I’m pretty much nothing like Hemingway, as far as that goes. But we do both love Spain, wine, boxing, beards, adventure, bullfights and simple declarative sentences.
Here are some things I learned from the first couple of chapters of A Moveable Feast…
First, either prices of things were vastly different in 1920s Paris, or ol’ Ernest had some strange priorities.
Soon after talking about the impossibility of buying firewood to heat his hotel room / office during a Parisian winter, he goes to a café to write. There he has a coffee, 2 glasses of rum, half a liter of wine and a dozen oysters.
These days, in Barcelona, I can afford to heat the flat and go out for a couple of drinks. But a dozen oysters? Sheeit… Maybe on my 40th birthday or something.
And certainly not in lieu of paying the gas bill.
And also, the smells of 1920s Paris…
These days, we don’t think much about the stench of life before modern sanitation.
Toilets that you shared with all the neighbors on your floor, or (even worse) a chamber pot under the bed. Cesspools under the buildings that had to be pumped out at night, by horse-drawn carts with pumps on them.
(The number of horses shitting on your street would probably be bad enough, back when automobiles were still something of a rarity.)
In the chapter called The False Spring we learn that in the mornings, a goatherd walks his goats down Hemingway’s street, selling milk. If you want milk, you bring a pot, and he’ll milk the goat right in front of you.
Fun times. My butcher once told me stories of growing up in Madrid, not so long ago, when there were a couple of cows on every streetcorner for those who needed milk.
People who whine about gentrification take note: at least we’re not up to our knees in animal feces, these days, while we’re #ponzaning on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Hunger… of all sorts
There are, as Hemingway’s wife says, “so many sorts of hunger. In spring there are more. Memory is hunger.”
Now that I’m getting old, I know what she meant.
Not just the hunger and loneliness of youth, far from home, walking aimlessly around a new city with no-one to share a meal (and no money to stop for one) or a bed or even a conversation with.
Not that hunger, but the hunger for a chance to do it all differently. Wondering if it’s all just been a huge mistake, and if I should have just stayed home, studied engineering and tried to be a respectable citizen.
(As if that had any chance of working…)
Anyway, the game’s already well underway – and there are no do-overs. It’s just this. This space, these characters, these rules or lack thereof.
Sometimes I feel like Super Mario, collecting coins and jumping for magic mushrooms. Saving the princess, and feeling strangely empty afterwards.
Battling evil, then hitching up my overalls and going back to being a humble plumber.
The Paris of imagination and nostalgia
Fact is, basically every artistic-minded person on the planet in the past century has spent some time wishing they were in 1920s Paris. In a garret, on a cold winter day, living the true life of the suffering artist.
More than Hemingway, I’ve always identified with Henry Miller. More sex, less violence and misery.
(Don’t take too many life lessons from people who end up blowing their brains out… that’s what I always say.)
Anyway, Miller also spent some time in Paris, somewhat later – and also hungry, broke, and lonely.
Maybe they were the original digital nomads. Writers and journalists who could work from anywhere with access to a telegraph.
And maybe their lives sound more exciting in hindsight.
Of course they do.
So do yours and mine, if you edit out the boring bits. Leave in the sex and booze, take out the commute and the standing in line at government offices, pretend long after the fact that your decisions were somehow rational and well-thought-out.
And voilà, as they say.
Your life: an exercise in narrative fallacy.
The fact is, a lot of people try to glamorize the past: that cities were more vibrant, that country people were happier, that life was more intense in previous decades.
But I remember a couple of previous decades, and mostly, they sucked. Go back a little further and you’re in a world of syphilis, polio, untreated sewage and crushing poverty… almost everywhere.
Starbucks and H&M haven’t ruined cities, because cities are always changing. Because life is always changing.
And in a couple more decades, when the last Starbucks is closed and boarded up, we’ll be nostalgic for frappuccinos and 2019 fashion.
“Those were the days,” we’ll say. “We really lived back then.”
Of course, it’ll be just another lie we tell ourselves to avoid the present.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today. Let’s try to enjoy life as it is, with all of the advantages the 21st century gives us.
Sound good? Alright.
P.S. I was thinking of making this article about Hemingway’s Lost Generation vs Millennials these days. But I’ve already talked about millennials in another article, and what do I know about how people felt after going through a world war? Anyway, if you want to read something else, check out: As Boomers Near Death, Inane Blathering about Millennials Increases. It’s just as sarcastic as that title sounds.
P.P.S. More than 1920s Paris, I’ve always wished I could have been around in the 60s. You know, kicking it with Hendrix and Dylan and The Grateful Dead. Then again, I’m sure Haight Ashbury and Greenwich Village in those days sucked in all kinds of ways we can barely fathom now. What do you think? Leave me a comment… Thanks!