Hemingway had a gift for memorable book titles. One of the best is A Movable Feast, his account of living in Paris as a young man among the expatriate writers of the 1920s.
I was surprised he wrote it at the end of his life, not as a young man. I had wrongly assumed he used contemporary observations.
In fact, it was written decades later and the story of how the book was written may be more instructive than the tales in it.
It goes like this: Hemingway was living and drinking in Paris along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane and other writers from the Lost Generation.
He took copious notes and in 1927 he stored them in a custom-made Louis Vuitton steamer trunk in the basement of the Ritz Hotel.
Thirty years later he happened to be in Paris. Hemingway’s biographer A.E. Hotchner described the scene:
“In 1956, Ernest and I were having lunch at the Ritz in Paris with Charles Ritz, the hotel’s chairman, when Charley asked if Ernest was aware that a trunk of his was in the basement storage room… It was filled with a ragtag collection of clothes, menus, receipts, memos, hunting and fishing paraphernalia, skiing equipment, racing forms, correspondence and, on the bottom, something that elicited a joyful reaction from Ernest: ‘The notebooks! … There were two stacks of lined notebooks like the ones used by schoolchildren in Paris… Ernest had filled them with his careful handwriting while sitting in his favorite café, nursing a café crème. The notebooks described the places, the people, the events of his penurious life.”
Think of all the things that happened in those intervening years. All the places Hemingway traveled, from Tanzania (The Green Hills of Africa) to Spain (For Whom the Bell Tolls) to Italy (A Farewell to Arms) to Cuba (The Old Man and the Sea.)
By then he had been married four times, been in two plane crashes, suffered severe burns from a brushfire and was a serious alcoholic.
Hemingway left the trunk at the Ritz as a young writer on the verge of fame and fortune. He returned older, wealthy and broken.
He used the material to finish a draft just before he committed suicide.
The notes explain how Hemingway was able to remember so many amazing anecdotes and conversations so many years later.
It’s also a wonderful example of the value of taking detailed notes and also of returning to them later.
It’s the only way to remember anything with any fidelity.
I’ve adopted the habit of writing one page each day. I include the places I go, people I meet, the things we say and what I read.
It’s long on specific details and short on opinions.
I did the same for many of the years I worked at Bloomberg LP. I would send out a daily note to my boss and colleagues with the specifics of what we accomplished each day.
Some people thought the daily regime was excessive.
I saw it as a way to document and communicate progress.
Also, you never know when the notes may come in handy.
My posts obviously aren’t as poetic as Hemingway.
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”