‘A Moveable Feast’

Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of living with his first wife Hadley in Paris in 1921-26, as a young struggling writer, is sprinkled with gossipy stories of his relationships with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and other famous names.

After A.A.Gill, it’s a coincidence that another writer who drank, pops up here, but it’s a notable thread in Hemingway’s narrative of Paris life. His story of a road trip with Scott has an unselfconscious backdrop of continual alcohol consumption. Another era? They both had alcohol dependency problems throughout their lives.

Hemingway writes in plain, unadorned language, so I will try to follow his style in my truncated version below of the drinking theme in his road trip.

Scott and Zelda have shipped a 1922 Renault Tourer to Marseille, to drive up to Paris. Unfortunately the soft-top is damaged on arrival in the port and simply cut off at Zelda’s request (as she hates it), and with subsequent bad weather they abandon the car in Lyon and return by train to Paris. Where Scott convinces Ernest to return together by train to Lyon and drive the tourer back to Paris.

The morning of their departure in Lyon the lads join up for an American breakfast, and Scott asks the hotel to prepare a picnic lunch for the road. Ernest reckons Scott has obviously been drinking already and looks like he needs another drink. They discuss whether either of them is a morning drinker, and decide to keep each other company with a whisky and perrier. They feel much better.

The ‘garagiste’ explains to Ernest that Monsieur F (who basically dislikes foreigners) should get his engine piston rings replaced in Paris as evidently Scott has been running his tourer without enough oil and water. During the drive, without its top and with no raincoats, the lads shelter under trees or at cafes whenever it rains, which happens about ten times that day.

The excellent truffled roast chicken picnic lunch is washed down with white Mâcon wine, which they drink at each stop, as Ernest had stocked up with four more bottles in Mâcon itself. He recounts that Scott was excited about drinking the wine straight from the bottle, possibly for the first time.

That afternoon Scott worries about his health, imagining ‘congestion of the lungs’ or pneumonia according to Ernest, who prescribes more Mâcon, ‘since a good white wine, moderately full-bodied but with a low alcoholic content, was almost a specific against the disease’.

Overnight in a hotel in Châlon-sur-Saône, Scott thinks he may be dying and goes to bed, even though his pulse and temperature are normal. Ernest prescribes whisky and citron pressés (squeezed lemon) for them both, with Scott to take his with aspirin: ‘you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head’. He can’t get a bottle of whisky on room service, so he orders two double scotches with their lemon drinks. Ernest explains that most drunkards in those days died of pneumonia, but that he found it hard to consider Scott a drunkard “since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol”.

“In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or beer or cider. I loved all wines except sweet or sweetish wines and wines that were too heavy, and it had never occurred to me that sharing a few bottles of fairly light, dry, white Mâcon could cause chemical changes in Scott that would turn him into a fool. There had been whisky and Perrier in the morning but, in my ignorance of alcoholics then, I could not imagine one whisky harming anyone who was driving in an open car in the rain. The alcohol should have been oxidised in a very short time.”

While waiting in his room, Ernest finishes off a Mâcon uncorked at their last stop, lamenting that he would much prefer to be in a cafe, and drink something ‘a little more authoritative than Mâcon’ in preparation for dinner.’

While Scott is ‘almost dying’, they finish off the two whisky sours, and decide they need another to ward off the cold. Scott gets very animated and missing Zelda, so they have another two double whisky sours. Then they go down for dinner, although Scott is a little unsteady and scowling at other people.

Entrées of very good snails were accompanied by a carafe of Fleurie (beaujolais), but half way through Scott gets called away for an hour long phone call with Zelda. In his absence Ernest finishes off Scott’s snails and the rest of the carafe. The main course of famous Bresse chicken is accompanied by a bottle of local Montargny, ‘light, pleasant white wine’.  Scott then passes out at the table with his head in his hands. The waiter and Ernest take him up to their room and put him to bed.

Ruminating back at the dinner table by himself, Ernest insightfully concludes that Scott ‘should not drink anything and I had not been taking good care of him. Anything that he drank seemed to stimulate him too much and then to poison him and I planned on the next day to cut all drinking to a minimum.’

Next day they drive on towards Paris with Scott cheerful and healthy. At lunch Ernest orders one bottle of the ‘lightest’ wine and tells Scott not to let him order another ‘under any circumstances’, which he does and even gives Ernest some of his share of wine.

Once back in Paris, Ernest drops off Scott, returns home to collect ‘Tatie’ his wife, and head off to their favourite cafe, Closerie des Lilas, ‘to have a drink’.

Phew, bonne santé, indeed. Mon dieu!

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