Friday, November 5, 2010

Ernest Hemingway and a Simple Taste of Life

The other night I was lying in bed, feeling somewhat unfulfilled and restless. But what to do? There were many possibilities at hand, but I found myself burdened with an inability to decide. As I stared up at the smooth, white ceiling and felt the down comforter like a cloud below me, I realized exactly what I needed: Ernest Hemingway.

Truly, when all else fails, there is nothing that Hemingway and a glass of red wine can’t fix. A Moveable Feast was plucked from the bookshelf, and I lay back down to read. Immediately I was absorbed, transported across the ocean and back in time to Paris in the 1920s. I joined Hemingway in cafes—we read, wrote, sipped wine and beer, ate oysters, and met with Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Plath. We observed James Joyce eating with his family at Michaud’s and experienced debauchery on a road trip with F. Scott Fitzgerald. There was magic and there was love, and we were one with Paris.

Hemingway was a man who cherished everyday, concrete moments and who was described by Fitzgerald as possessing the “quality of a stick hardened in the fire.” These distinctive qualities and his straightforward, concise language defined his novels and characters. Food and eating certainly played large roles in the crafting of his stories, offering everyday moments to ground one’s self in as the modernity of the twentieth century rushed in from all directions. The relationships in his works are often built upon everyday moments—the eating of a sandwich, the taste of a sip of white Capri wine, and the feel of a woman’s body between sheets.

The first time my younger sister tried to read what is perhaps my favorite of all of Hemingway’s novels, The Sun Also Rises, she remarked, “It seems like all they do is go to cafes and drink and eat.” Well, yes. That’s kind of the point isn’t it? The characters use consumption and pleasure to deal with post-World War I society. Rather than focusing on the war, the unfortunate sexual effects it had on the main character, Jake Barnes, and the fact that the woman he loves, Lady Brett Ashley, sleeps with other men, instead they drink and they eat. Jake and Brett cannot consummate their love, but they can induce pleasure with food and numb themselves with alcohol. As they seek an authentic existence in a society dealing with the disillusioning effects of World War I, it is only through the basic, human acts of eating and drinking that they can find meaning in their daily lives.

And perhaps Hemingway was onto something here. Don’t we still often turn to food and eating in the midst of a rapidly changing society and uncertain times? Isn’t it a glass of wine or a slice of bread that can help us deal with the external world? When all else fails, for me there’s always Hemingway, and for many of us there’s always a bite of food or sip of drink that can reaffirm a sense of meaning and authentic experience in our lives. So cheers to the one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century—Ernest Hemingway, this simple taste of life is all for you.

“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.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast 

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