Monday, January 9, 2012
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.
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.
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.