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Hemingway in Paris: Literary history inspires writers

Start with a seemingly inconsequential dialogue among a middle-aged couple at a zoo.”

 “Then, you see her. The young woman in the audience, and you realize that the prior scene’s just a film.”

 “She’s the only one in the whole Cineplex crying —”

 “Or it’s horribly dubbed in French, and she’s laughing but crying.”

 Silence sets in.

 “Oh, f---,” I interrupt.  “You’re terrible at this.” 

 The 10-minute interior dialogue comes to a close as a Clement leaps onto the table, situating his spineless feline body between my half-functioning Dell and 4.5-euro black tea. 

 It’s 11 in the morning, and I have been preoccupied pretending to be a writer at the Café Des Chats, a tea salon in the Marais neighborhood.

I look at Clement and his 13 friends, trying to recollect what compelled me to come there in the first place.  I don’t even like cats.  I’m a dog person for God’s sake.

Begrudgingly, I return to the slew of freshly conjured, idiotic phrases on the harshly lit screen. 

“What would Ernest say?”

By this familiarity, of course, I refer to the prolific Ernest Miller Hemingway: a revolutionary in American prose. And for no clear reason, Hemingway has been a reassuring, omnipresent figure in my life — one that I keep running into.

A commemorative plaque in Montana at age 15. A tiny trattoria in Florence at 18.  My could-have-been neighbor in Paris,  age 20.

Hemingway first came here in December 1921 as a newlywed with Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.  Initially, he wrote for newspapers like the Toronto Star, submitting short stories and travel pieces.  Both of their apartments in the fifth arrondissement still stand, only an 8-minute flânerie from my studio.

In fact, I often peruse the quartier’s “wonderful, narrow crowded market street,” rue Mouffetard and Marché Monge, which he once frequented for the same essentials: cheese, bread, booze, etc. (likely in reverse order of importance, for him).

The thing about Hemingway, though, is that everything I dreamt about — of him in Paris, with the rest of the Lost Generation and the flapper gowns flittering about — is extinct.

Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore are no longer places to sink into the unpublished draft of your friend, James Joyce. Rather, these sites can be found under Fodor’s “DINING” section.  The “Saint Germain-des-Prés” sub-section.

The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is another relic of the writer’s past that underwent post-mortem commercialization. 

 Originally founded in 1919 by American Sylvia Beach, the shop became another key setting for Anglophone writers and expats.  It was here in this “warm, cheerful place” that Hemingway would borrow from their selection at a time when he couldn’t afford any outright purchases.

Today, the shop is a celebrated “used” bookstore that tightly grips on to the bohemian tradition by hosting poetry readings and special events, like the “Bard-en-Seine Festival” (outdoor Shakespeare reenactments, July to August).  In actuality, this is a completely different bookstore from that of Hemingway’s old haunt — one which did not exist while he was in Paris, only opening in 1951 after his store (of the same name) had closed during German occupation in 1940.

Personally, I’d recommend another modern incarnation, which appears in the less-touristic Abbey Bookshop created in 1989 by Canadian Brian Spence. 

And thus, for no justifiable reason, I found myself feeling deceived by my own expectations about being a fake writer in Paris. Vaguely disenchanted about the city in which I expected to be closest to him, to my aspirations.

 Although, there are moments — moments in which I feel connected to my clinically depressed, alcoholic guardian angel:

Along both banks of the Seine, one will find the bouquinistes.  Wooden, fold-out stands that are permanently fixed to the parapet along the river, dipped in the same dark green paint and displaying a diverse range of used books and magazines with the occasional set of posters (black-and-whites of Montmartre or naked 1950s housewives). 

This outdoor book market is a UNESCO World Heritage site started in the 16th century. In addition to the likes of François Mitterrand and Thomas Jefferson, Hemingway was a regular.

Sometimes, I collide into little facts that reunite us.  I once read that, in his most severe period of financial strain, he would hunt pigeons with his bare hands in the Jardin du Luxembourg.  I can imagine him, stalking grey herds across the manicured expanse, the hunter of center-city Paris.

Once again, I concede that my romantic “A Moveable Feast” clichés have long since perished, even before WWII had begun. The city changed, like any living place.

Yet, there remains a lingering spirit in Paris, which I will explore and take with me back to New Brunswick and the reality beyond it. To an incomprehensible degree, this is a city drenched in a profound history of literature — of all things, really.

 In that sense, I will understand my coming here as a personal holy pilgrimage, with my non-misogynistic, non-anti-Semitic conception of Ernest Hemingway leading the way. 

It’s like he said:

“There is never any ending to Paris. … We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it.”

Tess Rosenberg is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English and political science with a minor in French. Her column, “Stories From Paris,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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