Despite the fact that Ernest Hemingway was a depressed alcoholic who cheated on multiple wives, his writing has always thrilled me, ever since the first time I read “The Sun Also Rises” in college. He was originally a newspaper reporter, which you can tell from the extreme simplicity of his writing. But what I loved most was his ability to cut to the core of complex human emotions. He was especially good, perhaps unsurprisingly, at writing about angst.
Last October, I started reading his memoir about living in Paris, “A Moveable Feast,” and it resonated with me so deeply that I began to write a blog post about it. I never finished the blog post, probably because I finished the book first and became kind of disillusioned with him — he is, after all, a depressed alcoholic who cheats on his wife — but still, parts of it were pretty profound to me. Especially this part, where he’s sitting inside a Parisian café on a rainy day, writing a story and staring out the window.
I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises [oysters] and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good it until I read it over the next day.
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
I, too, felt empty and both sad and happy while I was in France, I as a study abroad student, Hemingway as an expat writer. Far from close friends and family, with not much to do except wander, I was often lonely — yet with a glimmer of joy at the corners, of being completely free and open to possibilities.
One Monday night last fall, shortly after reading “A Moveable Feast,” I came home from work and felt this way again. It was the beginning of the week. I didn’t know what I’d be working on the next day. I was feeling stressed and lonely. I missed my boyfriend.
Then, I remembered Hemingway. There was a restaurant in my neighborhood that served oysters for a dollar each on Monday nights, and I had nowhere to be, so I carried a book to the restaurant, ordered a drink and a half-dozen oysters, and read alone at a high-top table. I was empty and both sad and happy, but after a few oysters I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy.
Good writers are not necessarily nice people. We love to make heroes of people when we like their work, but it’s sometimes a giant leap from reality to fiction. I am also quite taken by the $1 per oyster place that you describe!
such a good book and i love that you chose that passage. he has a way of making the reader romanticize everything, even the ugly stuff. it’s such great fun.