Tuesday, 12 July 2011

They'll Always Have Paris. . .

I recently spent a few days in the lovely city of Paris, having just read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (yes, I'm aware it's such a clichéd thing to do, but I'd actually never read this memoir of living in Paris in the 1920s, even though I'd been on quite a Hemingway kick as a teenager). And having also read Paula McLain's novel The Paris Wife, told from the point of view of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife, I was curious to see how the original compared. Even though it was written several decades after the events it describes, I found it oddly moving (particulary Hemingway's regret over the end of his relationship with Hadley), very funny at times, and inspiring in his dedication to the work that good writing takes. Here's one passage I liked on him discovering the great Russian authors in Sylvia Beach's lending library at Shakespeare & Company:

To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.

And no trip to Paris would be complete of course without a visit to the legendary bookstore that Beach inspired.
My hotel was in Montparnasse, just around the corner from La Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway liked to spend time uninterrupted, and where he wrote parts of The Sun Also Rises. It's now quite a swanky restaurant.

My favourite passage from A Moveable Feast was this one on writing in cafes and getting totally immersed in the process. He certainly worked at his craft:

Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake. A pencil lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would use the small blade of the penknife to clear it or else sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake.
Also accompanying me on the trip was Enrique Vila-Matas's Never Any End to Paris, translated by Anne McLean. It seemed the perfect literary companion with its title taken straight from Hemingway. However as Vila-Matas notes, while A Moveable Feast chronicles Hemingway's years in Paris when he was "very poor but very happy", Never Any End to Paris is about his own sojourn in the mid-1970s, when he was "very poor and very unhappy." It too is a meditation on starting out as a writer, given as a series of lectures, looking back on those early days when, following his literary idol, he rented a small garret (from Marguerite Duras no less), and set out to write his first novel. But as with tourists today, there's no getting away from the self-consciousness of it all:

I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn't need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn't afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco. Sometimes, sitting on the terrace of some café, as I pretended to read some maudit French poet, I played the intellectual, leaving my pipe on the ashtray(sometimes the pipe wasn't even lit) and taking out what were apparently my reading glasses and taking off the other pair, identical to the first and with which I couldn't read a thing either. But this didn't cause me too much grief, since I wasn't trying to read the wretched French poets in public, but rather to feign being a profound Parisian cafe terrace intellectual. I was, ladies and gentlemen, a walking nightmare.

This passage gives a good example of the tone throughout; witty, self-deprecating, just a tad obnoxious at times, but always entertaining. He encounters a number of writers along the way, has a memorable encounter with an intense Isabelle Adjani at a party, and does a fair bit of posturing and pondering about his life, his first novel, cinema, and why nobody - especially his wife -seems to see his physical resemblance to Hemingway. Carrying at all times in his back pocket a crumpled list of writing tips given to him by Duras, this memoir is as much a reflection on the difficulties a writer has in finding inspiration and subject matter, as it is about recounting youthful life-shaping experiences. It's also inevitably about Paris, and that was feast enough for me.