At lunch GMB and I were talking about Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the nonfiction book in which he portrays his writing contemporaries as a bunch of buffoons. The depiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, is particularly, er, withering. The spirit of Hemingway’s perspective on them is captured in this edited excerpt from the most infamous part of the book, “A Matter of Measurements”:
Scott asked me to have lunch with him at Michaud’s restaurant. He said he had something very important to ask me that meant more than anything in the world to him.
(After) a last carafe of wine he said, “You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
“Come out to the office.” I said.
“Where is the office?”
“Le water,” I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are O.K. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues.”
We went over to the Louvre and he looked at the statues but still he was doubtful about himself.
“It is not basically a question of size in repose,” I said. “It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle.”
“But after what Zelda said…”
“Forget what Zelda said.” I told him.
In the book, Hemingway presents his writing as a search for truth:
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, `Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say….
But many critics have questioned Hemingway’s view of himself and his writing life, arguing that A Moveable Feast served less to capture truth and more to aggrandize Hemingway. See, for instance, Alfred Kazin’s “Hemingway as His Own Fable.”
While he was often dismissive, on occasion Hemingway offered praise for other American writers, mostly men. After receiving the Nobel Prize, he said:
I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen. Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize.
I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen, or to Bernard Berenson, who has devoted a lifetime to the most lucid and best writing on painting that has been produced, and I would have been most happy to know that the prize had been awarded to Carl Sandburg.
Because of his many wives and his snide nonfiction portrayals of women (such as his depiction of Zelda Fitzgerald), Hemingway was villainized as a misogynist throughout the 90’s. It was popular then to denounce his female characters as one-dimensional and insulting to women. I understand the arguments, but I don’t relate to them. Characters like Catherine Barkley (in A Farewell to Arms) ring true in the world of Hemingway’s fiction no less than the women and men in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which is heralded by most feminist critics of Hemingway’s work but was dismissed in Chopin’s day as anti-male.
As for Hemingway’s attitude toward the work of most of his female contemporaries and predecessors, I haven’t read enough to comment intelligently. He hung out with Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, although he mocked Toklas — and while he seemed to admire Stein’s intellect, he also said, “I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it and it was a good healthy feeling and made more sense than some of the talk.”
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights must have held some significance for him, though. A review of the Hemingway archives in Havana revealed that “he recorded his weight and blood pressure almost obsessively on the inside cover of his copy.”