Monday, January 9, 2012

A Short Stroll in Hemingway's Paris

I spent the last days of 2011 in Paris, France.  My third visit within a year and my seventh or eighth time staying at the same little friendly hotel in the heart of the Latin Quarter, steps away from the Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain, the Sorbonne University and the Museum Cluny and only a few minutes stroll to Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Luxembourg Gardens.
Early one morning, equipped with Noel Riley Fitch’s wonderful and indispensable Walks in Hemingway’s Paris: A guide for the Literary Traveler (New York: St. Martin’s Grifin, 1989) (a gem which I was lucky to stumble across in the incredible Shakespeare and Company a few years ago), we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens, quiet at that time of the day, except for a few mothers with the small children, the inevitable elderly men bowling and a half dozen practitioners of tai chi. The pond with the fountain was deserted of boats.  I last walked here in October, and it felt like it was the height of summer then.  Now, in late December, the weather was mild and it felt like fall. Ernest Hemingway described the gardens, in Islands in the Stream, far better than I could ever do: “I can remember afternoons with the boats on the lake by the fountain in the big garden with the trees.  The paths through the trees were all graveled and men played bowling games off to the left under the trees as we went towards the Palace and there was a clock high up on the Palace. In the fall the leaves came down and I can remember the trees bare and the leaves on the gravel. I like to remember the fall best."

We were on our way to the Palace, originally built on the orders of Maria de Medici, now the home to the Senate but also one of the city’s leading exhibition spaces.  We were luckily able to skip the line for tickets to the exhibition “Cezanne and Paris” because we had booked ahead online, something I recommend.  Hemingway used to come here too, specifically to view the Cezanne pictures that were kept here (they have all been since moved to the Museum Orsay).  He remembered learning from Cezanne that it wasn’t enough to simply express the truth: “I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them.”

I enjoyed the exhibition, though like many things in Paris around this time of year, it was too crowded.  I shudder to think of what it must have been like later in the day.  I walked on, exiting the Gardens though the entrance directly opposite the one we had entered by. I immediately stopped to enjoy this view of the former home of Malcom Cowley, the American writer who became the spokesperson for the American expatriate literary community of the 1920s.

He famously formulated it like this: “Paris is like Cocaine”. His former apartment is, appropriately, above a book shop.
Some hundreds of meters along the same street I came to Gertrude Stein’s home and famous salon.  A plaque to the right of the entranceway reminds us that she once lived here for over twenty years with her partner Alice B. Toklas.  Their apartment was on the ground floor, facing the courtyard.  Alas, although I loitered, I failed to find an opportune moment to enter the building and a cleaning lady barred the way.  This is the best I could manage:

Gertrude Stein Home in Paris

Hemingway first visited Stein here in 1922 and was stunned by the paintings of Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse that hung on the walls. He wrote: “It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museums except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs made from purple plums, yellow plums, or wild raspberries." Hemingway loved the warmth, the paintings and the great conversation. He became a regular visitor and referred to Stein as his brother! In 1925 he brought F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was living nearby, to meet Stein. Woody Allen’s recent film Midnight in Paris attempts to tell the story and gives a positive impression of Gertrude Stein.  Alas, Hemingway and Stein later had a serious falling out and in his memoirs he describes her as an ‘old bitch”. One contemporary commented that Hemingway ‘could never forgive a favour”.

My loitering in vain had cost me precious time and I had an appointment on the nearby Place Saint-Sulpice. I quickly loped past former homes of Ernst Hemingway, James Joyce, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. I crossed the sun drenched square in front of the great church.

Saint Sulpice, the biggest church on Paris’ Left bank, provides the setting for a William Wharton novel and a now very famous scene in The Da Vinci Code takes place here.  But during the 1920s a great number of modernist novelists convened here.  This is where both Faulkner and Hemingway attended Sunday services. Stein and Toklas briefly lived in a little hotel on the square, as did Djuna Barnes; the hotel formed the setting for the opening scene of Barnes’ novel Nightwood. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described the square as a: “quiet square with its benches and trees, a fountain with lions, and pigeons walking on the pavement and perched on the statues of the bishops.”  My appointment was in the only café on the square, the Café de la Marie.  Although the interior of the café is plain, today it is a meeting point for writers, artists and film directors. In the past Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Barnes, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and many others came here to drink.
This time round I had my three teenage daughters in tow.  Enough of nostalgic walks among the ghosts of famous writers. The rest of the day was given over to shopping.  Of that I have little to say.


  1. I love the idea of the city becoming home to locals and ex-pats together eg Ernest Hemingway first visited Gertrude Stein here in 1922 and loved the paintings of Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse that hung on the walls. F Scott Fitzgerald was living next door. James Joyce presumably drank coffee and alcohol at the same cafes.

  2. Very lucky daughters. When my father was in Paris he had his instruction. Gloves. Gloves. Gloves. In charming colors, not just the basic. Always to ask for the new spring gloves.

  3. Yes indeed. There is a story that Joyce and Hemingway once spent an evening in an nearby cafe, on the other side of Boulevard St. Germaine, near yet another home of Hemingway (he moved very frequently) and Hemingway ended up having to bring Joyce back to Joyces's nearby flat with the latter semi-comatose in a wheelbarrow. And also nearby is the former Shakespeare and Company - the original, owned by Slyvia Beach, the publisher of Joyce's Ulysses in 1922.

  4. Tanks for the comment Nadine. Paris brings many memories back to many people. On this trip it was handbags we were chasing.

  5. Sigh. Literature, literary history, shopping, Paris. You are blessed. glad you had such an enjoyable trip.

  6. Hi Chris, I do realise that I am lucky.
    Thank you.

  7. If you like Woody Allen movies, you would enjoy his latest - Midnight in Paris. Without giving too much away, I can say that it has many scenes involving the ex-pat artistic community of the twenties. We watched it yesterday and it was very nice.

  8. Thanks Chris. I saw it last summer and really enjoyed it.