Describing Paris, Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” For, it was in Paris, on the Left Bank in the 1920s, that Hemingway found his voice. I like walking the streets he wrote about, sitting in restaurants that he visited and watching the city go about its business. Hemingway’s Paris lives in the cafes along the river Seine, where ideas were born from ephemeral conversations and novels were imagined over a cup of cafe creme.
There is a shop in Paris which personifies that zeitgeist, run by a man called George Whitman, who was in his 80s when I last saw him. Whitman called the bookshop Shakespeare and Co., as a tribute to the pioneering bookshop run by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s. It has inspired clones in New York, Moscow and Bogota.
I looked out at Rue de la Bucherie, which smells of Mediterranean soups. North African immigrants played their drums with the careless abandon that comes with Sunday evenings, while a young French student played the saxophone to nobody in particular.
That evening, in the shallow twilight, I saw a besotted young lover plead with his obstinate girlfriend. And a diligent student could be seen bringing his month’s savings, which he probably blew in second-hand bookshops.
It was in such bookshops and cafes, in the open spaces of Jardin du Luxembourg, on the busy Boulevard St Michel and Boulevard St Germain, at squares such as Place Contrescarpe, and in little alleys such as Rue Mouffetard, which overflows with fresh fruit and flowers and the best of the day’s catch, that expatriates Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald lived through the singular defining moment of the world between the two wars—the Jazz Age. Or what another American writer, the mother hen Gertrude Stein, called Une generation perdue—the lost generation.
It was the time when you were an American abroad out of choice; you lived on borrowed money, trust accounts, erratic pay cheques. You wrote about bullfights in Spain, cycling in Paris, fishing in Italy, mountain-climbing in the Alps, and you got sucked into the vortex of European politics: The rise of the Fascists in Spain and Italy, the specter of Nazism in Germany, while clinging to the strong undercurrent for liberty in France.
James Baldwin found refuge in Paris, and Beat writers such as Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg found Paris stimulating. Today, Milan Kundera makes his home in the city that continues to be the watering hole for literary insomniacs.
It was Paris that gave Beach the confidence to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, which the English world had frowned upon. During World War II, Beach was forced to close her shop during the Occupation years because she refused to sell Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to some German soldiers. On Liberation Day, Beach was surprised to find Hemingway, with a party of allied soldiers, at her shop. He liberated Shakespeare and Co., lifted Beach and planted a huge kiss on her lips, and told her he must now liberate the Ritz Bar.
This is how Hemingway described his neighbourhood: “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. Sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a litre of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing. With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smoke-stacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plain trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
Nor was I, although the barges are replaced by fashionable bateaux carrying videocam-wielding tourists shooting the Latin Quarter from their air-conditioned cabins.
“The Seine is prettier than the Tiber,” Whitman had told me, “and the Thames cannot equal it. There is no river so beautiful. The cores of our cities are destroyed, but not in Paris. Paris allows you to walk, and I like living in a city where I can be a pedestrian.”
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