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Thursday, 13 May 2021

Reflections on My Feast That Turned Sour

A Hemingway Royal portable.

It’s coming up to 12 years since Seán Hemingway controversially published the so-called “restored edition” of his grandfather’s A Moveable Feast. It came out at about the time my own “moveable feast” in journalism – taking me from the inanga of the West Coast of New Zealand to the carrageen of the West of Ireland - was being finished off with a sour dessert. During a career lasting close to half a century, I had never considered being a “teacher” of my trade. Indeed, from my earliest days in print newspapers, I was made aware that “journalism cannot be taught”. But there were occasions when advice was sought, and I offered it in terms of “read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and have beside you a copy of The Essential Hemingway”. It turned out I was not alone in considering this sound counselling. In his introduction to the “restored edition” of A Moveable Feast, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín recalled the two Hemingway books that had “strayed” into his family home were A Moveable Feast and The Essential Hemingway. “I took the book [A Moveable Feastat its word,” wrote Tóibín, “and its word was filled with immediate promise and strange, interesting truth”.

According to Hilton Als, an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, writing the “On Television” column in The New Yorker last month, A Moveable Feast can’t entirely be taken at its word. Hilton claimed “The starving-artist myth that Hemingway put forth in his memoir … is one of several that the filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick debunk in Hemingway, their careful three-part documentary.” This premièred on PBS in the US on my 73rd birthday, April 5, and I very much look forward to seeing it when it reaches Australia. I will be particularly interested to see what it makes of Seán Hemingway’s “restoration”, if it mentions it at all. Als certainly doesn’t refer to the Seán Hemingway rewrite in his article.

Illustration by Aline Bureau to The New Yorker article, captioned "Hemingway learned to play the role of himself through study and persistence". The article is headed: "A New HemingwayDocumentary Peeks Behind the Myth. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s film examines the burden of the author’s performance of himself."

When I became aware of what Seán Hemingway - son of Gregory (aka Gloria) Hemingway - had planned, I devoted part of one of my own weekly columns to it. My gut feeling back then was that A Moveable Feast would become a tarnished pearl. After all, would anyone dare change Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22 in 2060? Or Joan Didion’s Blue Nights? I began the column by outlining the reasons my own moveable feast was ending with a bad taste in my mouth. This is what I wrote back then:

A reliable copytaker on a Fleet Street newspaper.

Back in the mid-1980s, the full impact of the advent of so-called “new technology” was starting to be felt in the newspaper industry. Typewriters were being replaced by computers as the primary tools of trade for reporters. But, worse still, whole branches of the newspaper production tree - previously thought to have been indispensible - were being lopped off. Among these were limbs that had been occupied by proofreaders and copytakers, and this to a large degree accounts for old-timers so often asking of me these days, “How come there are far more mistakes appearing in newspapers today?”  Good, experienced copytakers with a sound, basic education were more often than not also first-hand “copy-tasters”, in that they vetted copy and corrected it even before it had reached a chief-of-staff or a sub-editor, let alone a proofreader.

Proofreaders at work. Remember them?

For all that, the most telling change in the newspaper industry  - and one that money-hungry proprietors saw as a distinct advantage in the coming age of computers - was the disappearance of what in Australia was known as the Printing and Kindred Industries Union. In one of the more cynical exercises in newspaper history, owners half-heartedly offered PKIU members who would soon otherwise be put out of work the opportunity to re-train as journalists. I say half-hearted because no real training was ever made available. It remains arguable as to whether such a thing was indeed possible, not least because it’s near impossible to teach old dogs new tricks, even if journalism can be taught at all. As it was, many of those who sought the change of profession were patently unsuited to journalism. Inevitably, these people were soon shunted out of the workforce anyway, but this time without the redundancies they might have expected as a result of the demise of the PKIU.

Hemingway in Paris in 1926, at a time when his first wife Hadley
became aware of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer,

At about that time, I was asked to suggest techniques which might assist former readers, compositors and stonehands, linotype operators and typesetters to make the adjustment to journalism. I could think of no better method for them to learn to write stories in a concise yet descriptive and accurate way than to read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But, I hastened to add, it should be read in conjunction with The Essential Hemingway, in particular The First 49 Stories, so that the would-be reporter could see the startling results of the skill Hemingway developed and honed in Toronto in 1919 and in Paris in the early 1920s, while he was composing short pieces on conflicts in Europe to send back to the Toronto Star.

Patrick Hemingway

Although I’m afraid I cannot boast of any great success stories in converting ex-comps into journos, I have continued to offer this same advice whenever I’ve been asked by anyone for help in their newspaper writing over the ensuring quarter of a century. I am now beginning to wonder, however, whether I will still be able to do so after a new edition of A Moveable Feast reaches Australian book shops later this year [2009].

Allan Massie

The revised edition is causing some concern in the publishing world, because Hemingway’s grandson, Seán Hemingway, has made what novelist Allan Massie described in The Spectator earlier this month [August 8, 2009] as “substantial changes”. Seán Hemingway has rewritten that part of A Moveable Feast in which Ernest, reflecting almost 40 years later on the breakup of his first marriage, writes about Seán’s grandmother, Pauline Pfeiffer, and her well-executed plan to come between Ernest and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Massie wrote of the changes, “Some chapters have been relegated to an appendix, and the last chapter, ‘There Is Never Any End To Paris’, appears in a very different form. Seán Hemingway believes that the 1964 version is unjust to his grandmother, Pauline, and does not represent his grandfather’s true feelings.”

A.E. Hotchner was "considered to be Boswell to Hemingway's Johnson".

This last part is highly contentious. Seán is claiming Ernest’s fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh, cobbled together the last chapter after Ernest’s death. Yet there is no evidence of this, and, indeed, Seán appears to have no proof his rewrite more truly – to use a well-worn Hemingway word – represents Ernest’s feelings. Massie pointed out, “This claim [that Mary Hemingway wrote the last chapter] has been rejected by A. E. Hotchner, Hemingway’s friend, disciple, business and literary associate in the last dozen years of his life. Hotchner, in an article in The New York Times, insists that the 1964 book is very much the manuscript which he himself delivered to Scribner’s in 1960, and that Mary had nothing to do with editing or, more importantly, reworking the last chapter. Hotchner is probably right. Nevertheless there is this to be said for Seán Hemingway’s new version: that in April 1961 Hemingway wrote to Charles Scribner Jr to say that the Paris book couldn’t be published in its present condition; it was unfair to Hadley, Pauline and Scott Fitzgerald. But he also added that everything he had since done to the book had made it worse.”

Massie’s judgment is that “the new version is full of explanations which weaken the impact, and which reek of self-pity. There is self-pity in the 1964 version too, but it is concealed behind a mask of stoicism. It is nastier, but it is also artistically right. It is effective because in this version Hemingway was true to his own artistic credo: that you can leave anything out, so long as you know what it is you are omitting, and the work is stronger for doing so. Massie argues the book should have been left alone. “Seán Hemingway may have done his grandma justice - but it is at his grandfather’s expense,” Massie concluded.

Christopher Hitchens

The [now late] journalist Christopher Hitchens does not agree, and he gave what he calls the “restored” edition a more glowing review in The Atlantic earlier this year [June 2009]. He did so partly because some minor gaps in the original had been filled out, especially in relation to sport and food writing. But Hitchens accepts the theory that Mary Hemingway “pasted together” the Hadley-Pauline story after Ernest’s death, and generally applauds the fact it has been rewritten. Hitchens, just as I had done back in the mid-1980s, recommends reading A Moveable Feast in conjunction with other Hemingway works. I suppose where Hitchens and Massie coincide in their opinions of Hemingway, and of A Moveable Feast in particular, is in what Hitchens describes as Hemingway’s talent (“I won’t say genius,” he writes) “in getting the reader’s imagination to shoulder the bulk of the work”.

Massie is arguing the new edition lifts some of the burden off the reader’s imagination. If this is so, I will need to revise my standard advice to budding journalists*. The feast of practical guidance provided by Hemingway’s memoirs has, apparently, moved on, to something less nourishing. (*Indeed, any advice I've offered these past 12 years, since this column appeared in print, has been, "make sure you get the original edition".)

1 comment:

Bill M said...

I didn't know there were 2 versions. I have the original. I need to read the revision. I did see some of the documentary when it aired here.