Thursday, April 07, 2011

In Love With Hemingway's Paris

Of all the books I own the one that gets taken down and re-read the most is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. I pretty much learned everything good about writing, about creating atmosphere and mood, from that book. For that reason I was excited to see that Hesperus books has released a volume titled On Paris by Ernest Hemingway. It is a small volume, just 80 pages, collecting the young Ernest Hemingway's dispatches to the Toronto Star between March 1922 and December 1923. Some short, some longer, all of them filled with the young journalists beginnings as a writer.

The key to appreciating Hemingway's style in these early years is in recognizing the dry, droll humor. It seems sometimes that he is the only sane man in a lunatic asylum but he has chosen to report on whatever happens as accurately as possible. A Moveable Feast was written forty years later than the articles in On Paris and, in it, we see the seasoned old giant looking back on the eager young man he once was. But in On Paris the author is that eager young man and everything about him seems strangely wonderful.

My favorite of the articles is Rug Vendors in Paris. Complaining about the inevitability of being accosted by a rug vendor while enjoying a coffee at an outdoor café he advocates periodic outbursts of screaming “Death to robbers and rug vendors!” but recognizes they will probably not take that seriously. In the conversation that follows, arguing with a rug vendor, the dialog style, that became so typical of the later novels, is crisp, clean and hilarious.

Some of the articles delve in to the mysteries of French politics and the growing tensions (between the two World Wars) with Germany. In an essay on gargoyles he makes note of the particularly nasty gargoyles on high towers that, despite having been created some centuries before, all seem to glare in the direction of Germany.

He also takes on shocking offenses against Parisian society, did Pioncaré laugh in Verdun cemetery, and the great apéritif scandal, which happened during a particularly festive July 14th celebration. It seems an “unbalanced young Communist took a shot at and missed a prefect of police by mistake for M. Poincaré and the patriotic crowd mobbed him. Everyone agreed that M. Poincaré's life was undoubtedly saved by the Fourteenth of July because who could be expected to hit anyone they had shot at after such a night as all Paris had just spent.” This had little to do with the actual scandal which only manifested days later when everyone sobered up and realized that the many signs advertising apéritifs hanging over the cafés had been paid for by the government and it just seemed wrong that the government should promote the distilleries in the process of creating such a grand celebration. “There is a fearful scandal on,” Hemingway concludes, “and the inquiry about the apéritif signs still continues.”

I had to stop myself from reading the book all at once because the stories were so entertaining. In one article he discusses feminine fashion and the fad of ladies wearing hats with sparrows on them. In another he questions why the working men of Paris tolerate wearing such dreadful clothes just because their wives bought them. The men admit that the female domination of working men has to stop but, unfortunately, there is a daunting issue – these same women are such excellent cooks it is rather hard to stand up to them.

One of the most purely Hemingway essays in the collection is about one M. Deibler who lives in a comfortable Paris suburb among neighbors who respect and admire him for his jovial personality and neighborliness. They know he works for the government and, when M. Deibler is called away for a few days on business, they keep his wife company and await his return. What they do not know is that M. Deibler is the official executioner of Paris and is often required to pack up his portable guillotine and travel to some other town to attend to business. Well, you can imagine the rest.

This is such an entertaining little book. In it Hemingway is never more Hemingway-ish and that is a non-stop delight.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I just finished reading a biography of Gerald and Sarah Murphy, who Hemingway pretty thoroughly roasts in this book. I remember loving it years ago when I first read it, but I wonder if I would feel the same way now after learning so much more about the people he writes about.

    It seems as he got older Hemingway had an ax to grind with anyone who had known him before he achieved Living Legend status. Sadly, I suppose that even came to include himself.

  2. Was it "Living Well Is The Best Revenge"? I really liked that book about them.

    Yes, I think Hemingway simply could not bear getting older. He felt weak and useless and he could not live with that. Such a sad loss.

  3. It was "Everybody Was So Young". One of the things it said was that Gerald never liked the Revenge title that the author used, because it implied that they were bitter or unhappy. I found it interesting that even though both Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote very unflattering portraits of them, Gerald and Sara never turned on either of them.

  4. I'll have to look for that. That whole era fascinates me.

    I wonder if it was a "class" thing. The Murphys were very affluent and lived a luxurious existence. Perhaps the "struggling artists" resented it.


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