Sunday, July 30, 2006

'Searching for the Lost Generation': An Aspiring Novelist Travels to Paris

If you went searching for the center of the literary universe during the 1920s and ‘30s, you needn’t have looked much further than the gas-lit banks of the River Seine. Those who came to Paris between World War I and World War II were Americans primarily, and they came from every crevice and crack of America: F. Scott Fitzgerald from Minnesota, Ernest Hemingway from Illinois, William Faulkner from Mississippi, Gertrude Stein from Pennsylvania, Sherwood Anderson from Ohio.

Some, like Fitzgerald, found fame waiting for them when they arrived. Others, like Hemingway, came to Paris to claim the fame they knew was rightfully theirs if they could just find the right bull to take by the horns. But in reality, they all came in search of the same thing: a generation lost and forgotten, they came to Paris in search of inspiration. They came in search of their Muse.

When I set out for Paris in the spring of 2004, I, too, was searching for my Muse. I was thinking about a novel, and while I had the fire burning in the belly, I had yet to find the spark to ignite it. But as I thought about Paris and all the great literary works it had inspired, I felt certain that somewhere in the streets of that great city I would find my Muse just as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the rest of the Lost Generation had found theirs.

Joining me was Talton Gibson, a longtime traveling companion who had agreed to photograph the excursion for posterity. I felt comfortable Talton was just the man for the job as he had accompanied me on my last literary trek to Pamplona, Spain, where together we had experienced firsthand the week of debauchery and danger made famous by the man whose home would begin this tour.

Hemingway’s first home: 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine

Hemingway’s first apartment is located on top of a hill overlooking an area called Pont Sully. Unlike Fitzgerald, who prided himself on living beyond his means, even at the height of his fame and financial success the only frills Hemingway seemed to care for where those of a matador’s bolero, and the building reflects Hemingway’s penchant for understated simplicity. If I weren’t for a tarnished brass plaque next to the door, I feel certain we would have missed the place all together.

I have been told that if you catch the tenant who lives in the fourth floor apartment occupied by Hemingway, he might grant you an audience and show you around the place. I ring the bell several times, but apparently he isn’t in so I have to settle for the street view.

It amazes me to think that Hemingway was only 22 years old when he first passed through the doorway in front of which I am now standing. And while I’m slightly older than Hemingway when he first climbed these stairs for the first time, I can’t but help feel a kinship to the ambitious, young writer. When Hemingway arrived in Paris in the winter of 1922, he was already a prodigious short story writer, but this is the place where Hemingway mastered his craft. This is the place where he wrote his first novel.

The provincial, working-class neighborhood seems to be pretty much like it was when Hemingway moved in. Considering the former occupant, there is one thing oddly out of place. Just to the right of the lacquered wooden door is a women’s boutique. Purses, tablecloths and dozens of other dainty items fill the windows and spill out into the street. Everything I know about Hemingway suggests that even in his formative years he was a “man’s man” long before the term machismo became synonymous with him. The fact that those searching for Hemingway’s first apartment are probably told, “It’s just above the Chiffon print in the window— you can’t miss it,” probably has him rolling in his grave.

Hemingway’s studio: 39 rue Descartes

Just around the corner is the attic room Hemingway rented in 1922 as a writing studio after he and his first wife, Hadley, settled in at rue Cardinal-Lemoine. The first floor of the building is a bistro, and we catch the waiter rolling his eyes as Talton sets up the next picture to document our walk. The waiter is obviously used to the literary looky-loos who routinely stop by, and once he realizes we’re more interested in reading the plaque above the door than his afternoon specials, he slithers back inside, tray tucked neatly under his arm.

The view from the small, attic room is quite spectacular. Hemingway’s depictions of it in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Moveable Feast tell of jagged rooftops, smoking chimneys and the hills of Paris rising and falling in the distance. But we’ll have to take Hemingway’s word for it. The waiter has just alerted a tenant returning from the corner store with a bag of groceries of our presence, and they’re now engaged in pointless banter, clearly waiting for us to leave.

It’s still early in the walk, but the climb to the top of rue du Cardinal-Lemoine was a bit more than we had bargained for, and we’ve worked up quite a thirst. So counting on the Hemingway lore to be true he never took up residence in an area where a bar was more than a stone’s throw away, we press on in search of a drink.

Café des Amateurs: Place de la Contrescarpe

Hemingway spent many an afternoon at a little watering hole called Café des Amateurs in Place de la Contrescpare, which, we are told, is “just around the corner.” The only problem is that when we turn the corner, there are nothing but cafés lining the small roundabout. We decide to pull up a chair at Café des Arts for no reason other than it’s the first one we come to. We trust Hemingway used this rather simplistic logic when he, too, wanted to unwind after a long day of work.

When the waiter arrives, Talton orders a Stella beer from the tap and I go with a Buckler, a non-alcohol malt beverage. I know my selection is very un-Hemingway, but we have a long walk ahead of us, and if the resistance we encountered at 39 rue Descartes is any indication, we’re going to need to have our wits about us. Remembering that the purpose of my walk is not only to retrace the steps of the writers and artists of Paris in the 1920s, but also to find my Muse, I sit back and wait for it to sneak up on me. It takes a few minutes, but soon I feel a tap on my shoulder. But when I turn around to greet my Muse, it turns out to be the waiter, who wants us to settle our tab so he can make room for one of the regulars sitting at the bar who has decided a little fresh air will do him good.

The sun is slowly beginning to slide past those rooftops we might have seen had we thought to offer to carry that woman’s groceries up to her apartment a few moments ago. It won’t get dark for a while, but we decide to move on to our next destination nevertheless. Gertrude Stein’s salon awaits us.

Gertrude Stein: 27 rue de Fleurus

Stein’s salon was the hub of literary activity in post-war Paris in the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s. Nearly every expatriate living in the city over that 20-year period made the pilgrimage to Stein’s salon at one point. Hemingway’s first visit was in March of 1922. He came armed with three items: a short story about his boyhood called “Up in Michigan,” an unfinished novel he had had to begin anew after Hadley lost his first draft on the train en route to Paris, and a letter of introduction to Stein from the American novelist, Sherwood Anderson. All I’ve got is a half-eaten baguette, and a serious case of the hiccups from that non-alcoholic beer I drank much too fast.

As we arrive at number 27, a plaque greets us. Through the wrought iron doors a long hallway stretches into a courtyard, and if you angle yourself just off to the far right side of the glass doors you can see what appears to be a greenhouse. This is the place.
Not especially keen on getting yet another “it’s right over there” picture taken in yet another darkened doorway, I put the camera back in my bag. When I look up, however, I notice the wrought iron door is now slightly ajar, the result of a careless French garbage collector who has mistaken us for your run-of-the-mill lost tourists, rather than the aspiring literary aficionados we have become.

Moving quickly down the hallway and into the courtyard, I instruct Talton to get the camera back out of the bag. As he does, I peer through the window of the first floor of Gertrude Stein’s former abode. The interior of the salon is just as I suspect it appeared when Stein held court here in the 1920s and ‘30s. A few gilded frames adorn the walls, and while I doubt the Picassos, Matisses and Mirós that once hung in the salon are still inside those frames, the mere sight of the dark wood paneled walls conjures up images of Fitzgerald and Hemingway stretched out on silk embroidered chaise lounges, engaged in deep, passionate discussion about their latest literary endeavor. It turns out that the voice I’m hearing is not that of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but rather the voice of the garbage collector who has returned and is asking Talton a lot of questions— the most pointed of which is what I am doing in the flowerbed of number 27.

In spite of the confusion, we manage to get a picture of me peering over a fern, the greenhouse prominently featured in the background. Realizing I’m not going to find my Muse here, we continue to move (quickly, I might add) west along rue Fleurus to the third of four Hemingway haunts we will visit today.

Hadley Hemingway: 35 rue de Fleurus

Thirty-five rue de Fleurus was the temporary home into which Hadley Hemingway, their infant son, Bumby, and Mr. Feather Puss (the Hemingway cat) moved in August 1926, shortly after Hadley learned of Hemingway’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, the Paris Vogue editor who would eventually become Hemingway’s second wife. The original building was demolished in 1988. Today it’s either an office building or a very modern apartment complex— it’s tough to tell.
For the first time on the walk, I’m beginning to feel somewhat disillusioned. In the 1920s and ‘30s, there was an unspoken sentiment that if you went to Paris and walked the streets walked by those who came before you, then whatever it was that had inspired them would seep up through the cobblestones and inspire a generation anew. But where is this Lost Generation for which I am tirelessly searching? Certainly it is not inside this building before me—a building once frequented by one of the greatest writers of his generation–but today could easily pass as corporate headquarters for some faceless Fortune 500 company.

Despite my disillusionment, I am comforted by the fact that out of the restlessness Hemingway experienced from his failed marriage and increasing resentment of the Left Bank intelligentsia came inspiration. The result was The Sun Also Rises, one of the most lyrical and adeptly finessed books of the 20th century. It was the novel Hemingway had come to Paris in search of.

My search for inspiration, however, continues.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway: 6 rue Férou

The next stop on my hunt is the apartment into which Hemingway and Pauline moved shortly after his marriage with Hadley was formally absolved in January 1927. When Hemingway learned of the location of his new domicile, in all likelihood, he was ecstatic. For starter’s, the Museé du Luxembourg, less than a block away and probably visible from his window, housed one of the finest collections of paintings by Cézanne, whose work Hemingway greatly admired. The second reason Hemingway probably was happy to move into the four-floor walk-up was Pauline’s Uncle Gus had already paid the rent— a fact I’m sure sat quite well with the notoriously parsimonious Hemingway.

It is unclear exactly which apartment belonged to the Hemingways, but a little mishap that took place late one evening in the spring of 1928 suggests it was on the top floor. The story goes something like this: One night after arriving home late and probably a bit intoxicated, Hemingway inadvertently pulled a cord controlling a skylight in his bathroom. The windowpane came crashing down on him, resulting in a large, two-inch gash across his forehead just above his left eye. Hemingway probably spent the rest of the night concocting some fantastic story about how he had obtained the injury. He was due for a publicity photo in front of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore early the next morning, however, so any tale he manufactured was probably dismissed since everyone knew the only thing he was hunting for the previous night was the bathroom light.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: 58 rue de Vaugirard

F. Scott and Zelda lived in a half dozen apartments during their time in Paris. Like our previous destination, however, there’s an interesting story behind this one. It is here where Dick and Nicole Diver lived in Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel, Tender Is The Night. You can certainly understand why Fitzgerald set his novel of wealth, privilege and prestige here. The building is by far the most impressive structure we’ve encountered. Considering Fitzgerald’s penchant for high living, I would have expected nothing less. It’s a beautiful, neoclassical structure and exudes all the things that helped Fitzgerald define himself as the purveyor of the “Jazz Age.” The most notable feature is a pair of massive mahogany-stained wooden doors that extend up a full story. Two circular brass rings function as door handles, though ironically there is no use for them as the doors open electronically from the inside.

Feeling a bit out of place in the presence of such affluence, I decide it’s time to pay homage to a fellow Southerner, a provincial Mississippian by the name of William Faulkner, who in the summer and fall of 1925 lived just around the corner.

William Faulkner: 26 rue Servandoni

I know little about Faulkner’s time in Paris other than that it was brief and he made no attempt to contact the growing enclave of writers and artists who were convening regularly at Gertrude Stein’s salon a few short blocks away. He apparently spent most of his time in his room, growing a beard and working on a short story entitled, ‘Portrait of Elmer Hodge,’ about a painter who can’t seem to escape the grip of his over-bearing mother. Ultimately unhappy with the story, however, he never published it and by year’s end Faulkner left Paris, attributing his departure to ‘restlessness.’

With only one more stop on my walk, I, too, am beginning to grow restless. I’ve seen a lot today. I’ve seen the apartment and writing studio where Hemingway honed his craft as a writer; I’ve seen the residence of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, where one of his finest, most enduring works was set; and I’ve peered inside Gertrude Stein’s famous salon and seen the place where she proclaimed the most influential literary minds of the 20th century ‘a lost generation.’ Now I stand before the hotel where one of my Southern brethren lived and worked, by default allowing the moniker of ‘expatriate’ to be bestowed upon him, whether he wanted it or not.

Indeed, I have seen quite a bit over the course of a single afternoon. But despite all I have seen, the thing I have come looking for still eludes me. My feet have grown tired and heavy, but nothing weighs on my mind as much as the thought of returning home to Los Angeles without the spark of inspiration I need to set my novel in motion.

I am so consumed by my thoughts that before I even realize it, I am standing on Quai Saint-Michel, a busy street that runs along the River Seine directly across from Notre Dame. The street is lined with stalls from which vendors hawk an array of artwork, old French paperbacks and various other Parisian keepsakes. I decide to talk a walk along the river and unwind.

And then I see it.

Shakespeare & Company Bookstore: 37 rue de la Bucherie

There I am standing in front of the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, the center of the literary universe for the first 40 years of the 20th century— and I had just stumbled upon it?

I must admit I’m a bit disappointed to find the latest John Grisham novel prominently featured on a table directly in front of the entrance. But I take solace in the fact that the cashier, a peculiar man wearing a snappy tweed jacket over a lime green V-neck sweater, a nest of gray hair perched atop his head, tells me this particular edition is printed in England and damn near impossible to find in the States.

It turns out this ‘cashier’ is none other than George Whitman, the eccentric American who has run the Shakespeare for the last 50 years. I ask him where I can find some books by the writers who used this place as their revolving library in the 1920s and ‘30s— a time when the price he’s asking for that Grisham book could probably have gotten you a ten-year line of credit here. Having moved on to the next customer, he motions in the direction of a small, dimly lit room directly behind him. I move to the back of the shop, which takes a bit of tricky navigating. Books and people, and people reading books fill every inch of this place. When I reach the back, I see a narrow staircase to my right. Though I don’t know it yet, a well-worn blue and green Oriental runner marks the stairway to literary heaven.

As I reach the top of the stairs, it’s as if I have just entered some sort of literary crypt from the turn of the century. Each of the rooms, none of which is any bigger than a small closet, is filled with books from the floor to the ceiling. A few of the rooms even have cots, which I am told George rents out for a very reasonable ten Euros a night for those who want to ‘sleep with the books.’ The front room facing the street is a reading library, adorned with a table, two wooden chairs and a breathtaking view of Notre Dame across the river to the east. A sign above the window gently reminds you that while you are welcome to read any of the books up here, none are to leave the premises. It turns out all 70,000-plus tomes belong to George. Many of the books he has purchased over the years, while others have been given to him as gifts. Frankly, I can’t think of a better resting place for a book than here.

As I turn to walk out of the library and perhaps test out one of those cots myself, a sign above the doorframe stops me cold in my tracks:


And then it hits me like a lightening bolt. Inside the covers of these books, wrapped around me like a warm, comforting blanket, are the angels of inspiration I have been seeking. Their names are Ernest, Scott, and William and they are embroidered in gold and silver on spines of leather, cloth and paper. I have been to their homes and walked the streets they once walked; I have eaten in their cafés and drunk in the bars where they once drank. But none of these places could offer me inspiration. Rather, it is the worlds they created from these very places that, only now, I realize have always been my inspiration. “Don’t worry,” one of the angels calls out, “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

I see his face in a frame hanging on the wall, a slight gash just above his left eye. Comforted by the knowledge that he is looking down on me, I pull up the chair at the table in the room with the view overlooking the cathedral across the river. I take out the small notebook I have been carrying in my back pocket, and putting pencil to paper, I write that sentence for which I have been searching.

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Inspired as a result of his hunt, Mr. Grasty embarked on a new journey: Writing his first novel. Read an excerpt: