Jack’s Naughty Bits: Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

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A romp through the history of literature.

Ernest Hemingway

Penis size: a topic for the ages. Few will go to the grave not having discussed it, though only two opinions seem to have emerged: bigger is better, or it's not. Maybe it's not that surprising — other equally binary topics have merited similar scrutiny (Does God exist?) — but I for one remain fascinated with our fascination. Breasts, though seeming to have considerable size-based cultural import, don't elicit the same mystery. While many or most women obsess about the size of their breasts, there is little or no ambiguity to the matter. They get ranked with cup size, they can be pushed up or bound back or surgically augmented, but it's pretty much a scientific process. Not so with penises, apparently. I myself have gone through the gamut of perceptions of my Johnson: it's little, it's big, it's normal, it's weird, I don't really know, I couldn't care less, I couldn't care more. As the apparatus itself never really changed, these opinions obviously have more to do with my sense of self and my relationship to my own sexuality than anything you could measure in inches. To that extent, then, the penis for a man might less be the fleshy appurtenance dangling between his legs, and more a consolidation of his sexuality as a whole. No wonder we worry.
     Commonplace as penis questioning is, it, like pooping, does not have a strong literary history. The exceptions are noted: Joyce advanced modern literature by putting Bloom on the can; Hemingway advanced modern biography by making public Scott Fitzgerald's concerns about his ability to satisfy women. I can't say that I list Hemingway among my favorite authors; his baby-step sentences never jazzed me the way those of more self-conscious stylists do. (In fact, when I heard that there's a contest every year to award whomever can best imitate Papa's paratactic prose, I wanted to send in selections from the Book of Genesis: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness." Reads like A Farewell to Arms, no?) Anyway, old Hem loosens his belt a little bit when he's writing autobiographically, even permitting himself the odd comma, and nowhere is he funnier than in A Moveable Feast, the account of his time in that hunger-inducing expat haven, Paris. His tales of trying to negotiate the arrondisements without passing a single restaurant (to keep from teasing his underattended-to stomach) reminded me of my own Gallic misadventures, but his escapades with Fitz and Zelda are even better. We don't often get to go behind the scenes of a writer working up to and through his masterpiece; Hem's account of Fitz is a rare portrait of an artist. Here is the most intimate detail.

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From A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

In the time after Zelda had what was then called her first nervous breakdown and we happened to be in Paris at the same time, Scott asked me to have lunch with him at Michaud's restaurant on the corner of the rue Jacob and the rue des Saints-Péres. He said he had something very important to ask me that meant more than anything in the world to him and that I must answer absolutely truly. I said that I would do the best I could . . .
     When we were eating the cherry tart and had a last carafe of wine he said, "You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda."
     "No, I didn't."
     "I thought I had told you."
     "No. You told me a lot of things but not that."
     "That is what I have to ask you about."
     "Good. Go on."
     "Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly."
     "Come out to the office," I said.
     "Where is the office?"
     "Le water," I said.
     We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
     "You're perfectly fine," I said. "You are O.K. There's nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile."
     "Those statues may not be accurate."
     "They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them."
     "But why would she say it?"
     "To put you out of business. That's the oldest way in the world of putting people out of business. Scott, you asked me to tell you the truth and I can tell you a lot more but this is the absolute truth and all you need. You could have gone to see a doctor."
     "I didn't want to. I wanted you to tell me truly."
     "Now do you believe me?"
     "I don't know," he said.
     "Come over to the Louvre," I said. "It's just down the street and across the river."
     We went over to the Louvre and he looked at the statues but still he was doubtful about himself.
     "It's not basically a question of the size in repose," I said. "It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle." I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.
     "There is one girl," he said, "who has been very nice to me. But after what Zelda said —"
     "Forget what Zelda said," I told him. "Zelda is crazy. There's nothing wrong with you. Just have confidence and do what the girl wants. Zelda just wants to destroy you."
     "You don't know anything about Zelda."
     "All right," I said. "Let it go at that. But you came to lunch to ask me a question and I've tried to give you an honest answer."
     But he was still doubtful.
     "Should we go and see some pictures?" I asked. "Have you ever seen anything in here except the Mona Lisa?"