This time next week, I’ll be spending my first full day in Paris. Knowing I’ll be walking around the Left Bank always makes me think a great deal about the literary history that was a by-product of the Lost Generation’s time in Paris, particularly Ernest Hemingway’s. In his memoirs exploring his time in Paris—A Moveable Feast—he describes his two-room flat at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine as having “no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container.”
Hemingway in Paris:
a Literary History
Though he was living in the neighborhood teeming with the creative intelligence of the Sorbonne, his less-than-ideal living conditions were normal for writers of his means who were determined to leave a legacy in the creative realm.
On November 9 1923, he wrote to Gertrude Stein that she had ruined him for journalism and he was ready to “chuck” the profession: “You ruined me as a journalist last winter,” he wrote in the letter below. “Have been no good since. Like a bull, or a novillo, rather, well stuck but taking a long while to go down.”
It was his drive to become a novelist that brought him the financial challenges that relegated him to digs without basic necessities; you would think details like this would ease the nostalgia I still feel when thinking about that time in literary history but they don’t. I simply can’t help but romanticize those glory days when a handful of American writers had escaped the repression they felt in America and made Paris home, their activities turning the town into radical-literary central.
During my first trip to the city, I took my initial pilgrimage to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore my first full day in town. Founded by Sylvia Beach, who is legendary in Lost Generation lore and rightly so because she coined the name that has since followed the group of writers. It is a not-to-miss stop for me every time I’m in town because it’s an opportunity to pay homage to Beach, who remains a tour-de-force in the history of literature. There’s a chapter in A Moveable Feast dedicated to the bookshop. It holds a poignant description of how poor Hemingway was during the time he had just let go of journalism in order to write fiction full-time.
Sylvia Beach’s Influence on Literary History
“In those days there was no money to buy books,” he explained. “I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon.” He said of Beach, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” That’s quite a statement, and this note Beach wrote to Bunny Wilson, which I found in his papers at Beinecke Library, proves what a champion she was for the writers who came across her radar.
His description of his first visit to her shop runs so counter to how we’ve come to think of him given all of the lore surrounding him, literary and otherwise: “I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished…There was no reason for her to trust me. She did not know me and the address I had given her, 72 rue Cardinal Lemoine, could not have been a poorer one.”
Exploring the Literary Café Society of Paris
One of the things I’m looking forward to during this trip is being able to share all the places Hemingway frequented when he lived in Paris with Miles Stephenson—a burgeoning young writer (and the son of design journalist Tamara Matthews-Stephenson)—who will be joining us. We’ll visit Shakespeare and Company, of course, and have a café crème at the Closerie des Lilas, the café where Hemingway would write most mornings.
By the time he had found des Lilas, he was living at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. He described it as the nearest good café to home, adding, “The Closerie des Lilas had once been a café where poets met more or less regularly…People from the Dôme and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas.” In the last essay of A Moveable Feast, which is titled “There is Never Any End to Paris,” he begins with a lament that the cold was too much for him and Hadley once their son Bumby had been born, the reason they eventually moved away from the city.
“Alone there was no problem when you got used to it,” he explained. “I could always go to a café to write and could work all morning over a café crème while the waiters cleaned and swept out the place and it gradually grew warmer…It was wrong to take a baby to a café in the winter, though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored.”
In spite of their poverty, he reminisced about how happy he had been with his wife during that time. As he closed his tribute to Shakespeare and Company, he quoted Hadley as saying, “We’re lucky that you found the place.” His response was, “We’re always lucky.” Then he wrote, “and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.”
Hemingway on Writing
Hemingway wasn’t nearly as successful at holding his feet to the fire in relationships as he was at writing, which he admits in A Moveable Feast—if not overtly, he does this by how he describes his life and his work. I believe this is one of the grandest struggles in many a writer’s life. This letter from Bunny Wilson proves how cantankerous he could be—threatening a libel suit over something he took offence to and obviously never following through with it.
You can feel the muscle in Hemingway’s makeup that caused this when you read his attitudes about writing in a letter to Malcolm Cowley in 1945: “Been working every day and going good. Makes a hell of a dull life too. But it is more fun than anything else. Do you remember how old [Ford Madox] Ford was always writing how [Joseph] Conrad suffered so when he wrote? How it was un métier du chien [a dog’s trade]… Do you suffer when you write? I don’t at all. Suffer like a bastard when I don’t write, or just before, and feel empty and fucked out afterwards. But never feel as good as while writing.”
He claimed that certain places hold greater resonance for individual writers, and I feel this way about Paris, my last trip resulting in nine sonnets pouring out of me like water in the middle of the night. The resonance of this city is different than any other—more magical, I guess I’d say, than even NYC, my years there what I’d call “where the rubber met the road” for me. The energy of sturm und drang always drove me to get the real work done, while in Paris, I feel the pull to explore, which means the true writing gets done when I’m back at home. I believe that would change were I to make the decision to call the city home for a while.
Shadowing the Lost Generation in Paris
The city has changed quite a lot since Hemingway’s time while paradoxically managing to remain the same in a number of ways. Stepping into some of the cafés still brings a hint of nostalgia, which I never tire of experiencing. I have my favorites—Closerie des Lilas and La Coupole among them—and for its homage to Hemingway, Bar Hemingway, which I look forward to seeing this time particularly because the Ritz has been given a glamourous makeover. The visuals I’ve come across confirm the bar still exudes the writer’s presence as strongly as it did when I last toasted the old man with one of Colin Peter Field’s French 75s surrounded by the author’s writerly artifacts a few years ago.
I salute Hemingway because whatever his faults were, he wasn’t shy about telling the truth. To know that a writer of his ilk suffered when he didn’t write, and that he gave voice to it so I would know he did, is a treasure. It’s not that I would wish suffering on anyone else, but it makes my angst when writing time or words elude me a bit easier to bear. Maybe this is why I turn to his memoirs when I face emotional challenges, such as my most recent move from NYC.
Hemingway on Transplanting Yourself
I was feeling quite bereft about the relocation as the plane lifted from the tarmac at LGA because I realized it was the moment I was no longer officially a New Yorker. Though I feel I will always be one in my heart, there is a difference in duking it out with the city every day and only visiting. In an effort to maintain my composure, I opened A Moveable Feast to the place I’d left off and read, “…in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things.” I felt this way about the sonnets when they flowed forth in Paris, and I plan to write more of them during this trip. Let’s see if Hemingway’s premise holds true this time.
In closing, I’m excited to share with you that Miles will be doing a guest post here on The Diary of an Improvateur in the coming weeks, sharing with my readers his take on visiting Paris for the first time and his impressions of being a young writer in a town that has fostered some of the most famous (and infamous) scribes in the world! I’m psyched to have the opportunity to publish someone I feel is going to make his marke on the literary canon of our time.
A few footnotes:
I found this adorable video by a young woman who’d sought out Hemingway’s apartment on rue Cardinal Lemoine and went about describing the writers who lived nearby:
I’ve never come across a post with more visual representation of Hemingway than this fabulous Messy Nessy Chic post, which draws from the Hemingway archives at Harvard. It’s on my bucket list to delve into those sinewy papers before my time is up!
The Diary of an Improvateur and A Plumb Line Through Literary History © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by