A Moveable Book

August 11th, 2009

I offered what follows to my colleagues at Geist this evening for its Endnotes section. The Endnotes are generally intended to review books, films or occasionally music, and at Geist follow some very strict rules, most importantly, a word count of about 350. This entry more than doubles the count. So if it is accepted, it will be much truncated. No problem. I now accept authority. But I’m fond of the piece in its current form: seems to tell the story well. It’s not in any way strictly about the future of publishing, but it is very much about publishing as it is taking place today. Whether the lapses recounted here are a symptom of the changing mores of how publishing is conducted is for you to judge. I think it’s a fun tale.

In late June, Motoko Rich, the doyenne of book coverage at The New York Times, wrote an article about a new version of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” which was published several weeks later by Scribner in an edition of 16,000 copies.

While Ms. Rich does refer obliquely to controversy surrounding the new edition, her coverage tends to favor those who support the changes, which are extensive. The main progenitor of the new book is Seán Hemingway, who is a grandson of Pauline Hemingway, Hemingway’s second wife, who is portrayed poorly in the original. Adding some complexity to the tale, scholars widely accept Rich’s assertion that “Mary Hemingway, the writer’s fourth and final wife, was the one who edited the first edition…cobbling it together from shards of the unfinished manuscript he left behind.” Rich quotes Seán Hemingway to the effect that “I think this edition is right to set the record straight…”

Fast forward nearly a month to July 20, 2009 where The Times offered an article by “Op-Ed Contributor” A. E. Hotchner, a well-known American editor, novelist, playwright and biographer and one-time close friend of Hemingway. Hotchner’s article is titled, “Don’t Touch ‘A Moveable Feast’.” He is not, to say the least, pleased by the new edition. At the same time, he presents some very credible evidence to besmirch it.

Have you ever wished you could write in The New York Times, “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, left there in 1930. Ernest did not remember storing the trunk but he did recall that in the 1920s Louis Vuitton had made a special trunk for him. Ernest had wondered what had become of it.”

Well the trunk apparently contained the notebooks that were to be the source of “A Moveable Feast.”

Hotchner goes on to recount various comings and goings with Ernest, in Paris, in Ketchum, Idaho, in Spain, in Cuba and enfin, at the Mayo Clinic (where he reassures Ernest that the book did not require a different final sentence).

Hotchner then tries to set the record straight about Mary Hemingway’s involvement with the book: “Because Mary was busy with matters relating to Ernest’s estate, she had little involvement with the book. However, she did call me about its title. Scribner was going to call it ‘Paris Sketches,’ but Mary hoped I could come up with something more compelling. I ran through a few possibilities, but none resonated until I recalled that Ernest had once referred to Paris as a moveable feast. Mary and Scribner were delighted with that, but they wanted attribution. I wrote down what Ernest had said to the best of my recollection, and this appears on the title page attributed to a ‘friend,’ which is the way I wanted it.”

Hotchner goes on to state clearly: “These details are evidence that the book was a serious work that Ernest finished with his usual intensity, and that he certainly intended it for publication. What I read on the plane coming back from Cuba was essentially what was published. There was no extra chapter created by Mary.”

And then Hotchner delivers the punch line: “As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this ‘restored edition.’ With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in ‘A Moveable Feast’ about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Madox Ford’s grandson wants to delete references to his ancestor’s body odor.

“All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work. There is always the possibility that the inheritor could write his own book offering his own corrections.”

I agree.

This has generated a modicum of entertaining controversy well worth a Google search.

In the meantime, go check out Geist. It’s a great literary journal.