Book Corner: A Moveable Feast Pt 1
I have a shameful confession for a Francophile: I’ve never fully read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast! The quintessential Paris memoir! Mon Dieu!
Admittedly, I’ve been searching for a good way back into exploring Paris with you. One day, I was going through my (giant) pile of Paris and France books and inspiration struck! I would read the legendary writing of the equally legendary author and record the experience with you, my dear readers.
My vision is to go chapter by chapter, looking at the places and people mentioned in each one and exploring the city through Hemingway’s eyes. Some chapters, like the very location-rich first one, will focus more on geography. I suspect others will reflect more on the people or historical context.
Hemingway being Hemingway, his writing is quite concise and the chapters rather short. As needed, I’ll condense several chapters into one post. And I would love your feedback–do you like this idea? This format? Are you looking for something more/less/different? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
A Moveable Feast
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Let’s start with a quick look at the history and context of the book. As we all do, toward the end of his life Ernest reflected back on his youth. His time in the Great War had been captured in his novels. A fictionalized glimpse of his life in Paris was captured in the The Sun Also Rises. But, of course, Paris had stayed with him and he wanted to revisit it, especially after being reunited with some of his writings from that period. He began collecting his memories of Paris in the 1920s: his adventures, his coterie of authors and artists, his relationship with his first wife, and their travels.
Unfortunately, he took his own life before fully completing the manuscript. But what was completed was released in 1964 as A Moveable Feast. And 1920s Paris was suddenly real for us again!
For this series, I’m using the Restored Edition, with a forward by Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s son with Pauline Pfeiffer. It was edited by Seán Hemingway, Patrick’s nephew and Ernest’s grandson, who also wrote an extensive introduction. This edition was first produced in 2009 and differs somewhat from the original 1960s edition.
I had the extreme pleasure of buying my copy in Paris, at the re-opened The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore back in 2018. If you don’t already have a copy, you can grab it in paperback form [affiliate link] and in handy-dandy Kindle form [affiliate link].
A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel
We start with rain and writing. A typically Parisian scene, oui?
All the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first rains of winter…
The chapter begins with a meditation on the abrupt shift to winter and how this affects a person’s very outlook on life. Ernest also takes a long, somewhat amusing moment to badmouth the Café des Amateurs on rue Mouffetard as a “cesspool” filled with drunkards. He then walks over to one of his favorite cafés on the place Saint-Michel and gets lost in his writing.
I love that the book starts in this way, with a study of Paris and of Ernest all in one tidy little chapter. His imagery stays with you. The windswept rainy streets, the beautiful woman at the café, his focus and passion for his writing. You can practically taste the “victory” dinner of oysters and wine at the end.
Hemingway’s Walk to the Café
The walk to the little café on place St. Michel is so evocative that you can feel the rain and the cold. But being as map obsessed as I am, I thought it would be fun to try to map it out. And maybe when we are finally able to get to Paris, we can do it ourselves!
Here’s a quick map of the route he seems to have taken:
Most of it is straight forward, as he clearly discusses what he is walking past. Except for when he doesn’t. 😐 There is one moment in the walk when he simply “cuts in for shelter to the right”. He could mean cutting through the Sorbonne in some fashion, roughly diagonally. However, in 2021, there does not appear to be a way to cut through the Sorbonne itself, so we can’t attempt that today. This leaves us with a couple of options.
Our goal is to end up on the Boulevard Saint-Michel (Boul’Mich). He could have cut up a few different streets that end at the rue des Écoles, which he can then take to Boul’Mich. But the text implies that he walked up the boulevard for a bit before reaching the Cluny museum and the Boulevard Saint-Germain. So instead I’ve opted for the route that dumps you into the place de la Sorbonne and then onto Boul’Mich, vie rue Victor Cousin.
Places Along the Walk
Ernest walks past many iconic locations on his way to the café.
He starts at his office at 39 rue Descartes and then heads up to rue Clovis. Here he runs into several iconic landmarks, including Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, whose side stairs are the starting point for Gil Pender’s journey into the past in Midnight in Paris.
Hemingway then passes by the Pantheon, resting place for France’s honored dead.
Here rue Clovis becomes rue Cujas and we take our little side jaunt into the streets around the Sorbonne, popping out in the beautiful square in front of the university.
Then up we go along boulevard Saint-Michel, past the Cluny museum (already a museum in the 1920s) and across the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
A few more blocks and voila! We are at the place Saint-Michel. While we don’t know the name of the cafe that Ernest journeyed to, some of the square remains the same now. Check out the famous Saint-Michel fountain and all of the nooks and crannies in this unusual place. The café Le Départ Saint-Michel used to be the Caveau du Soleil d’or, where Picasso and Apollinaire hung out before Hemingway made his way to Paris. Could this have been the café in the story? Or was it one of the smaller ones lining the street? Most are quite touristy now, so use caution when selecting a place to rest after your walk!
A Few Other Notes
In addition to the walk, Hemingway mentions few other interesting tidbits in this chapter:
The Cesspit Cleaning. First, there were still cesspits (!). Second, they were cleaned out by pumps into horse-drawn tanks. He doesn’t mention the name in French, but apparently they were simply called les pompes de merde, which sounds nicer than sh*t pump, doesn’t it? Here we have an example, cheekily called a “good luck charm” (un porte-bonheur):
Café des Amateurs/place de la Contrescarpe. As mentioned before, he complains about the Café des Amateurs being a place for drunkards and wastrels. Sadly, I couldn’t locate a picture of this infamous place, located at 2 Place de la Contrescarpe. It is currently Café Delmas and presumably boasts a better clientele. But he also mentions the bus terminal out front in la place de la Contrescarpe , and there are pictures of that!
Lastly, he talks about the piece he is writing, set in Michigan–where his family spent their summers. He wrote a lot about Michigan, especially while living in Paris, so this doesn’t narrow things down for us. But here is a nice list of all of the Michigan stories he wrote, courtesy of Central Michigan University. Side note: I also spent my summers during elementary school on a lake in Michigan. Any other Midwesterners out there do the same? 🌞
White Wine & Oysters
We have come to the end of the first chapter. What do you think of the book so far? Have you read it before? Or are you also on your first read? And most importantly, would you like to continue our reading together? Please let me know!
Moveable Feast Cover: Barnes & Noble book listing. Published by Scribner, 2010.
Ernest Hemingway: “Hemingway working on his book For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, in December 1939“, from Wikimedia Commons, by user Bede735.
Louise Brooks: “Louise Brooks detail ggbain.32453u.jpg” from Wikimedia Commons, by user Nagualdesign. Original photo held by Library Congress, digital ID LC-DIG-ggbain-32453. Public Domain.
Saint-Étienne-du-Mont: Image from Google Street View, captured March 15, 2021.
Pantheon: Image from Google Street View, captured March 15, 2021.
Place de la Sorbonne: Image from Google Street View, captured March 15, 2021.
Cluny Museum Exterior: Image from Google Street View, captured March 15, 2021.
Place Saint-Michel: Image from Google Street View, captured March 15, 2021.
La pompe de merde: Pinterest PIN 105412447512781841
Place Contrescarpe: La place de la Contrescarpe vers 1925, from Les Rues de Paris.
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