A Moveable Feast – Hemingway, booze and creativity

There was a man on the Tube on Friday night who, amid all the sombre January faces in the carriage, was evidently keen to prolong the festive spirit. He was perched on his seat with a bottle of something poking out of one pocket, swaying slightly, ruddy-faced. Yet, incredibly, he was writing. As the train sped north he leaned onto the tiny notepad perched on his bag and scribbled: what exactly remained a mystery, and for all I knew it could have been akin to that moment in The Shining when Wendy Torrance finds the reams of ‘All work and no play…’ on Jack’s typewriter. Or the moment Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture The Castle finds her author father has composed nothing but ‘The cat sat on the mat’, over and over again, for three days.

Here, among all the dour New Year’s promises - the abstinence, the locking-up of creaking cocktail cabinets - was someone whose creativity seemed to depend, or at least receive complement from, the bottle. With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the novel hitting the cinema, 2013 saw a revival of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel notoriously ill-received upon first publication, penned by a man well known for mad, bad benders and blazing rows with his similarly addictive, though no less brilliant, wife. This year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of another great tribute to the turbulent relationship between writers and alcohol: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Hemingway was a confirmed, though usually functioning, alcoholic. Yet what amazed me when I first read this homage to Paris, while living in the city last year, was the level of detail provided from someone whose memory ought to have been fried by years of hard drinking. Names, places, the noise of children playing around the lake at the Jardins de Luxembourg; it’s all captured as though, booze-addled as he so often was, Hemingway used alcohol to channel his thoughts, to sharpen his focus, rather than to loosen a tongue that was already, and would remain, ready to wag onto the page. He’s rumoured to have taken a pitcher of martini to his desk each morning, and even invented the Bloody Mary. ‘Drinking wine’, he writes, ‘was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary’.

William Leith of The Times wrote recently about the challenges he faced when giving up alcohol for a year. One in particular would have resonated with the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald: namely, the idea that, sometimes, more can happen to a person when they’re drinking. This covers a whole spectrum of possibility. Who hasn’t chewed the fat over a particularly raucous evening, laughed about it, questioned it, formed narratives from those experiences? And, as a writer is the product of his or her stories, it’s no surprise that so many of Hemingway’s narratives revolve around evenings spent out, meeting new people, staying late into the night, ordering bottle after bottle. He joins the ranks of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S Thompson, Dorothy Parker and Tennessee Williams: all of them great, but all of them unable or unwilling to separate a 9am deadline from a 9am gin.

The American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever neatly demonstrates this potential: ‘I must convince myself that writing is not, for a man of my disposition, a self-destructive vocation. I hope and think it is not, but I am not genuinely sure. It has given me money and renown, but I suspect that it may have something to do with my drinking habits. The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.’ With this in mind, perhaps I ought to have felt less nervous for the drunk man on the Underground: he might have had a masterpiece in his lap.

Zoe Apostolides is a journalist based in London.

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