My Favourite Book: Jane Flanagan

Monday, January 9, 2012

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Welcome to my new book series in which I ask friends and fellow bloggers to talk about one of their favourite books. I'm so excited to introduce this new series to my blog, because it appeals to my inner nerd who just basically wants to hear people talking passionately about books. First up in the series is Jane from Ill Seen, Ill Said. I admire Jane so very much, for her skill with words, her intelligence and her kindness. When I first read the meaning behind the title of her blog, I knew I would become a regular follower of it. And incidentally, Jane's discussion of nostalgia below is also a huge topic in my own book, so I was startled by our similarities in thought. I'm quite pleased she agreed to launch this series, thank you Jane!

Hello, I'm Jane from the blog Ill Seen, Ill Said. I'm so very excited about this new series and honored Hila asked me to participate. A post like this tempts me to talk about those writers, books I return to again and again; anything by Beckett, Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, the short stories of William Trevor or Alice Munro or my recent new love, Maggie Nelson. But, I just finished rereading A Moveable Feast (the restored edition) and am still in its thrall.

I had no idea how much I'd enjoy rereading A Moveable Feast right at this time in my life, slap-bang in my mid-thirties. I read it originally, like most people, in my early twenties. Then, being a poor writer in 1920's Paris was a heady kind of dream, something I reacted to profoundly, romantically, full of sensual and nostalgic yearning.

A decade later, I feel we've become so detrimentally seduced by nostalgia, as a style and aesthetic statement, that I wasn't sure I'd enjoy the book so much. Whenever I think about nostalgia, I think of this Billy Collins poem (coincidentally it was a recurring thought as I watched Midnight in Paris). Nostalgia creates distance between us and them, now and then. If we think of those experiences as being precisely bracketed in that time, we deprive them their universality. And we short-sell whatever magic is here now, we disavow the golden threads of time and the ongoing existence of such great people, such great places.

My disdain for nostalgia is also rooted in my country: I come from Ireland and have broad experience of nostalgia being projected onto my home. Tourists still wish the landscape there was dotted only with thatched cottages. The truth is these cottages often housed poverty and hunger. Places live and change. True, some of Ireland's growing pains are ugly manifestations of ideas about what prosperity should look like. But the alternative seems to be some disneyfied theme park of a place, preserved to sate tourists who come with expectations based mostly on movies and books set in the past.

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But of course, Hemingway is not being nostalgic about Paris in the 1920's. He is simply in Paris in the 1920's (and Austria and elsewhere). Indeed, it's notable that he barely mentions Paris in other decades. He's a being-in-the-world. And to read A Moveable Feast with a romanticized view of the past is to ignore a lot of what is written in that book; which isn't mythic or romantic, but plain and poor and and personal and universal. It's about being in a city and carving out a way of living that is both intimate and shared, charged with creativity, but still negotiating material concerns, sensual desires.

What of that? Just this: A beautiful account of a man in a place he loved, poor and struggling, but occasionally affording himself and his love good food and holidays to places not yet fashionable or contrived. A man trying to write and taking that bold step of walking away from a money job, shouldering no less risk than those who quit the cubicle among my friends today. A man sitting in a cafe and observing a beautiful woman; something that happens daily in every city. All beautifully told in Hemingway's stripped-down style, honest, avoiding tweeness and lyricism.

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I especially loved the passages about Hemingway's writing process; the need to finish a day of writing with a leftover idea so you could start again the next day, and also with the push and pull of a creative community; the desire to be involved with and inspired by others but also to remove yourself. I've always been a solitary, unsharing kind of writer. But carving out solitary space in the blogosphere is an oxymoronic enterprise. And that same push-and-pull is something most bloggers and writers I know struggle with.

As I carve up my own time between writing and blogging, earning and living, I appreciate more the weight of those choices. In my twenties it was a foregone conclusion that art was worth any sacrifice. In my thirties, I have rent to pay and a life of occasional luxuries I've come to like. I fight to have both, to write and to live fully. My days are often beautiful and my friends real. And Paris? Paris is, of course, a gorgeous city. But the point of A Moveable Feast is that it's unfixed, that it's in our intention rather than inherent in a specific place and time. And that's what I loved about rereading this book; it inspired me to be in my place and my time.

Image sources (from top to bottom): 1. Ernest Hemingway, 1924, 2. Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, winter 1922, 3. The Hemingways at a cafe, Pamplona, Spain, 1925.

29 comments:

Jane Flanagan said...

Thanks Hila, so much, for having me here. You've made my week already!

Tana said...

Oh, Hila, thanks so much for this new series. And thanks to Jane, of course for reminding of the moments of nostalgia. The first book of Hemingway i read was 'The Old Man and the sea', it was in an old cover and poor state(it was inherited from previous lodgers). later I was astounded by his 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'. Last september was marked by reading his biography and of course by reariding his'A Moveable Feast'.

Mariella said...

I love when reading a blog I am left with the feeling that I have learned something new and meaningful to me I love it when it isn't just plain browsing of pretty images. It's a beautiful post, lots to think about...and I love this new series on your blog Hila, I hope it will inspire more mindful reading! happy new year

Natalie said...

Oh my goodness! I cannot begin to describe how much I love this new series, Hila! Especially since Jane started it with the book that I am currently reading for the first time. Coincidence or fate? haha

I was always apprehensive to read Hemingway's novels because of my dislike for many of his short stories, but now I just can't put it down. And I completely agree with Jane about Hemingway's unromanticization of Paris. Most of us are only exposed to the beauty of stories about Paris being the be-all, end-all of romantic cities, but his account is gritty and raw and honest, which I suppose he is very well known for (honesty, that is).

I think I will have to read more Hemingway to realize that he isn't fixated on a certain place all at one time or that his stories, wherever they are based, are universal in someway.

Thank you Jane for such an expressive and sincere post. Thank you Hila for starting this wonderful series. I can't wait for the next installment!

Rebeccak said...

Such a great idea for a feature! Now I just need to work through my current pile of bedside books and I can hit this one!

How do you find the energy to read for pleasure when you read all day as an academic? I find myself moving over to radio more and more as my eyes can't handle any more print after a day of reading for my thesis.

Sarah Rooftops said...

Oh, I love this post so much - I had a conversation with someone just yesterday about the romanticised views people elsewhere in the world have about Scotland (where I live) and Ireland and France.

I haven't read A Moveable Feast but I'm considering it now.

etre-soi said...

what a wonderful series :) Jane when you write about Ireland I see my own country and also Paris where I live now. No place is paradise, they are only what we made of them :)

Danielle P. said...

This series is an excellent idea, Hila! I, too, enjoy Jane's writing very much, and have now added this book to my to-read list.

Liane said...

I'm here from Jane's blog. And first- I've never read Hemingway. I don't know how that happened. But this year I am dedicated to my reading and he surely is on my list. Second, I always finish reading Jane's posts in a dreamy and thoughtful state. I admire her insight and her way with words so much. I've said this multiple times. I always feel I want her to really know it! She challenges my thinking and makes me want to do better in my writing. Thanks Jane and Hila.

rooth said...

That's a compelling argument to start the book - thanks for sharing your reflections and thoughts on it

Christine said...

What a fascinating read and a great new series! Perhaps I should reread that book as well. Beautifully done Jane!

Sam | ashore said...

Jane,
I read A Moveable Feast this year (for the first time, and as my first Hemingway). I was suggesting it to someone recently and - in trying to explain why I loved it so - I kept coming back to that final image of him seeing Hadley after being with his mistress at the train station. The feeling of something being changed, and you wish it could go back to the way it was. And for, for a while, it feels like it can. If we just try harder, or love better.

as I'm thinking about it now it's an awful lot like the final paragraph of Gatsby "tomorrow we will run faster ..."

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. So beautifully put as always!

Hila,
very (very!) excited to read more of this feature in the future.

erica-knits said...

I love this new series, Hila. Jane absolutely never ceases to amaze. I loved reading her thoughts on A Moveable Feast, it's one of my favorites. It's always interesting to see how different readers react to the same book. I, too, was enthralled by Hemingway's creative process and his courage to quit his day job. Very timeless.

mika said...

I am very much looking forward to reading more of this series Hila.
A very interesting read Jane - and in your reflections on nostalgia i started thinking about some conversations I have had recently - predicting that these days of small children - young family, where days are filled with heightened activity and emotion, full with challenges and frustrations, low in time and patience - big on love - will be looked back upon as golden years. I will mourn them i know - i will forget the days of locking myself in the bathroom with ice cream and earplugs... Of tears and doubt. I will be nostalgic...
I haven't read a moveable feast - i am sure to now.

Amelia said...

This is such an interesting post. I love the new feature, can't wait to read more. :D

Paula said...

Just found you and I will read this book on the strength
of your post alone. You write beautifully.

Sarah said...

i truly enjoyed this post, and i'm totally lovin' this new series. :)

it's awesome to take a break from the usual blogs and retreat into one like this - makes you stop and ponder, and to slowly think through.

and you're right - jane writes really beautifully! thank you for introducing her to us (me).

hope you're having a splendid 2012 so far, hila. x

Kelly said...

This was both a wonderfulpost to read; great idea for a series! I have a vintage library copy of "Moveable Feast" in my collection that I haven't read yet. Think that's going to change very soon.

As far as nostalgia,here's one of my favorite quotes, from a Ben Harper song: "How I miss the good old days/But I'm so glad they're gone..."

hila said...

jane: I should be thanking you! you've made my week too Jane, fantastic post.

tana: I love books inherited from past lodgers :) they seem to have a personal history.

mariella: I hope it will inspire more reading too. so many books, so little time ...

natalie: we'll call it fate :) I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with hemingway too, but 'a moveable feast' is well worth the effort. I love the way he describes paris too - especially since it's become a bit of a kitschy fad on the internet/blogs as this glamorous place of pure romance, when it has its flaws like any other city. I like his honesty.

rebeccak: sometimes the only thing that gets me through a day of work, or reading a dense piece of critical writing, is the knowledge that I have a good book of my own choosing waiting for me in the evening after work. So in that sense, I don't get tired of reading, I just want to read something else. There's always stupid TV-shows to clear the head as well :)

sarah rooftops: yeah, people also romanticise Australia as this 'rugged' landscape, and are shocked to find large cities here. It's so odd, this romantic idea they have in their heads.

etre-soi/sofia: hello sofia my dear, so good to hear from you. You said it wonderfully: a place is what we make of it, there's no perfection.

danielle: of course, you know I'll be asking you to contribute to this series in the future, right? :)

liane: I agree with you, Jane's insight is truly inspiring.

rooth and christine: yes, thanks to Jane.

sam: that comparison with 'the great gatsby' is quite apt, as it's pretty much a book about disillusionment and facing the 'real'.

erica-knits: we should start a Jane-appreciation society ;)

mika and amelia: I'm very much looking forward to other contributions for this series as well.

paula: thanks so much, but I didn't write this post, Jane Flanagan did :)

sarah: you too sarah! and thank you, I'm glad people are responding so well to this series, I was worried I'd scare people off.

kelly: ha, that's a great line, I'll have to use it!

flwrjane said...

Hello to you and thank you to Ms. Flanagan.

Only Jane could make me want to read Hemingway.

Actually to start reading him right now.

I foresee a trip to the library tomorrow.

Damn her, I've never been interested in his writing before.

Another Jane

hila said...

flwrjane: haha, yes, damn jane ;)

erica-knits said...

A Jane-appreciation society would be a wonderful thing!

Jane Flanagan said...

These comments make me so happy (and make me blush too). Thank you everybody. I'm so happy you enjoyed this post!

Christina said...

i love jane! if i had to mention one blogger, who i have learned so much from, it would be jane. it didn't matter how tiny my blog was or how different my thoughts were, jane never minded inviting me along, for the ride. i just ordered "a moveable feast" and i can't wait to read.

thank you hila
thank you jane
xo

hila said...

thanks again to jane, and thanks to you all for such a warm response!

Jo said...

I reread this A Moveable Feast this past year as well, smack in my mid thirties.
You put it beautifully when you said that it inspired you to be in your place and your time. Yes!
Wonderfully written post, and a fantastic idea for a blog feature!!

tara-lynn (good night, day) said...

A BOOK SERIES!!!!!! amazing.

Hila said...

tara-lynn: ha, thanks :)

Tracy said...

Just found your blog. Love it.