Wednesday 21 August 2019

Hemingway's ode to 1920s Paris stirs the soul of the city today

Blue, white and red brassieres hang from a balcony in Marseille, France, after citizens were urged to hang the tricolour from their windows
Blue, white and red brassieres hang from a balcony in Marseille, France, after citizens were urged to hang the tricolour from their windows

Gerard O'Regan

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.

The most oft-quoted reference to Ernest Hemingway's memoir of his time living in the French capital - as a fledgling young writer in the 1920s - has a certain piquancy in these pre-Christmas, winter days.

In Paris, sales of the book, famously titled 'A Moveable Feast' and published posthumously in 1964, have without warning, suddenly and dramatically increased.

A French publisher is pumping out extra copies to try and keep up with the demand.

Copies of the memoir have remarkably been left with the mountains of flowers, candles and sympathy cards that still pay homage to those who died in the gun rampage of just over two weeks ago.

It seems this galvanised new interest in the book gathered pace when reference was made to it in one of many emotive television discussions in the wake of the terror attacks.

For some reason, this surprisingly touched a chord with the younger generation in particular.

Maybe they were prompted to rediscover the soul of a city - which perhaps more than any other essentially appeals to the imagination.

And maybe it's this Paris of the imagination that was also under assault, amid all the murder and mayhem that was visited on its cafes, streets, and a symbolic concert venue.

Paris of those Hemingway years in the 1920s is, by definition, no more.

Apart from anything else, there are now the lurking presence of McDonald's fast food eateries; there is more english spoken there than ever before; and Sky Sports is available on even the most basic laptop.

And as with all capital cities, the number of non-native residents has escalated in an era when trans- national travel becomes ever more available.

Yet the city remains emblematic of whatever it is that constitutes Frenchness more than anything else in the world.

So maybe the quest for some consolation and reassurance, by way of going back to those words written by Hemingway all those years ago, is understandable for a new generation who want to embrace this metropolis and all it stands for. For his part, Hemingway can be accused of indulging in excessive reverie, and allowing the power and sometimes delusions of nostalgia, to paint an overly gilded memory of his time as a struggling young writer in the city.

The memoir was in fact completed over 30 years after he had ended his youthful sojourn living in the French capital.

The publication of the book itself was not without its own romance and drama.

It is essentially compiled from a collection of notebooks. The author had scribbled impressions of the city and those living there, when he was part of that much chronicled group of expatriate American writers, for whom it was a kind of nirvana.

The notebooks had remained "lost" for many years, abandoned in two trunks, and left in - of all places - the basement of the Ritz Hotel.

But when they were rediscovered, they clearly stirred some old memories in Hemingway of his Parisian days, and he determined to publish them in book form.

However, he died in the interim, and the fragments controversially put together by his widow and fourth wife were subsequently part of the compilation entitled 'A Moveable Feast'.

For anybody with even a passing interest in France - and in particular its capital - it remains a beguiling and emotionally charged read.

It is essentially an elongated love letter to Paris based on the remembrance of the author's own lost youth.

But it must be acknowledged the city by the Seine also has its harsh and demanding side.

It is not a good place to be without enough money to get by, and for all its charms, Paris can sometimes seem distant, cold, and reserved.

But perhaps all this is part of the French paradox, as its leader Francois Hollande strides some of the world's capitals this week, seeking support for some ill-defined response to those who spawned the assault on the country's capital.

French society also indulges its own hypocrisies, such as not confronting a tawdry colonial past, and some seething racial tensions which it chooses to ignore.

Yet an allure - part real and part fantasy - endures. Ernest Hemingway once wrote in his old newspaper 'The Toronto Star': "There is a magic in the name France. It is a magic like the smell of the sea or the sight of blue hills or of soldiers marching by."

And some of Hemingway's concluding words in a 'Moveable Feast' still resonate through time and place, when he wrote:

"There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.

"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 and you received return for whatever you brought to it."

Irish Independent

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