I must have read this book decades ago as a young writer. Certain parts have the ring of familiarity, especially Hemingway’s descriptions of writing in cafes with a notebook and pencil.
It’s a sparse book: a collection of vignettes about his early writing days in Paris. Much of the material was found in a steamer trunk discovered at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and Hemingway worked on it and added chapters just before his death. It has the disjointed feel of an incomplete posthumous collection edited by others. Still, some of the disparate pieces provide fascinating insight into this energetic, sad, enigmatic writer.
It deals with the time Hemingway lived in Paris with his first wife, when he was trying to get his start as a writer. The tone is casual, and most of the prose has the trademark Hemingway succinctness. He writes of his encounters and friendships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others, and about the joy despite the poverty he and his wife experienced in his struggling early years.
The book brought back a lot of memories of my own struggles as a young writer in Europe and in South Asia – except I was on my own. Instead of a wife, I had transient affairs from time to time, retaining the freedom of loneliness as I sought my muse. And although Hemingway writes of supposed poverty, it seems that he and his wife always had funds for fine meals, good wine, and betting at the horseracing track. My poverty ran along a different, more desperate path, so that I was sometimes literally begging on the streets, as I recount in my own memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search. Mine was more akin to the poverty that Henry Miller describes in his account of his down and out days in Paris, Tropic of Cancer.
The book also called to mind Woody Allen’s brilliant film Midnight in Paris in which a writer goes back in time to the Paris of the 1920s and meets Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso and Stein and Dali and other literary and artistic luminaries. That era seemed a golden age for writers, but as the movie points out, appreciation for the past is relative, and each period of history has its pros and cons.
One thing that shines through in this slim volume is Hemingway’s dedication to his writing. He had a work ethic that caused him to put the writing first, no matter what else was going on around. In contrast, he describes the dissolution of Fitzgerald, who got caught up in parties and alcoholic binges and neglected his work.
There are a lot of gaps in the story, and it would have benefited from some tightening and additions. Ultimately, Hemingway’s story is a tragic one. Despite his optimism and determination in the early stages of his career, he succumbed to depression and despair. He was one hell of a writer, though, and in some passages of this book, that talent shines through.