After the November attacks of last year many French begin reading this book as an act of defiance. It was left among some of the tributes at Republique and other places. More than one French friend told me that it was a chance to look at Paris through a foreigner’s eyes, and its sudden resurgence made it okay to read something that is often seen as too “cliché” for the French to read.
For those of us who write in Paris, it’s impossible to avoid Hemingway’s shadow. Whether we are browsing the stacks at Shakespeare and Company, or walking near the Place Contrescarpe, or even when writing in a cafe, we might imagine Hemingway himself toiling away in a corner over a notebook near empty glasses of rum. He’s writing, and he glances up to see a girl sitting by herself waiting for someone. She has a face “fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.” If the description of her strikes you, you can imagine the effect she had on Hemingway as he tried to refocus and concentrate on the story at hand.
“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
And what was that writing process like? “So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there” and “Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”
While Hemingway describes some measure of poverty during his time here, it’s nowhere near the harrowing account that George Orwell gives in Down and Out in Paris and London, a book I will cover in a future installment of this series. Yet, almost 100 years later, I think this is still very true: “In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.”
More than anything, this book is a snapshot of life of life in Paris, amidst writers and artists, between 1921 and 1926. We see all the usual suspects – Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Zelda), as well as so many landmarks that are still around like Le Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp. And of course, there is his wife, whom he manages to lose in the course of the writing, due to his own self-admitted infidelity. She’s not an integral enough part of the work for you to really feel the loss, but she does provide bookends to the story and to his time there.
Read it because you’re an American or because you’re not but want to get the quintessential “American in Paris” viewpoint. Or because you want to see just how little the city has changed in a century.
The featured image is of Hemingway in his Left Bank apartment in 1924.
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