Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part VI

Paris 1

Part VI: A Moveable Feast

“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

            . . . .

            All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife—second class—and the hotel where Verlain had died where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.

            . . . . I walked on in the rain. I walked down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St-Etienne-du Mont and the windswept Place du Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St-Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St-Michel.

            It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The Waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story . . . . “

                                                    Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

I have been a reader for as long as I can remember, but early on my tastes ran to whatever I could find in school libraries and cheap paperbacks, mostly adventure or war stories. Once in a while I found something really good: Catch 22 and MASH introduced me to the absurdity of modern life. When the Legends Die and From Where the Sun Now Stands I Will Fight No More Forever made me think about race, and especially American Indians, in a way I had never thought about before, and The Once and Future King and all of J.R.R. Tolkein opened my mind to mythology and the quest. But for every good book I stumbled upon, there was a load of crap to be waded through. I read more pulp than good books.

Late in college I found the authors that changed my life. Edward Abbey’s fiction and essays attracted me to environmental writing and the isolated canyons of the desert Southwest; Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane lured me to the trout rivers of Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; J.D. Salinger taught me the rhythms of dialogue and the dynamics of dysfunction; Walker Percy taught me to admit my beloved South was in spiritual decline; Tim O’Brien showed me the blurred edges between fiction and nonfiction and taught me to think about how to tell a true story; James Joyce taught me about epiphany; and Hemingway taught me how to write and how to think about myself as a writer.

imageThe Paris of Hemingway is the Paris I fell in love with, back in the mid-1980s when I worked that soul-sucking job in Georgia and felt more isolated than at any time in my life. I had started to read for real then because I had ideas about writing, and I found writers that spoke to me and I’d read every book they had put out and troll the bookstores for new releases from those still alive.

Hemingway’s writing seems simple at first, but it is richly layered. Short, declarative sentences—“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over”—set the stage for writing that unfolds like a city map, first placing the reader in a position to react to the weather—“We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain”—and then painting the weather so that we can feel it and see it for ourselves: “ . . . and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.”  Hemingway’s sentences accumulate detail through a steady arithmetic: “and . . . and . . . and.” The repetition of “rain,” three times, helps the reader settle in for a long, cold rain that threatens to stay on for the duration of winter. [Note that all italics are mine.]

Taking us into the Café des Amateurs, Hemingway adds sensory detail, which makes us feel like we are in the café with him—“It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness.” Next, Hemingway provides the commentary that makes us feel like insiders, making the knowledge of the café our own: “The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time, or all of the time they could afford it, mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter or liter. Many strangely named aperitifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on”. And finally, Hemingway gives us language to cement our new-found status as insiders—“The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.”

The Paris of Hemingway is the Paris I fell in love with, and part of the reason is because he writes it so well that I buy into the illusion that it is mine. First, Hemingway makes us feel the cold of his flat, waiting “six or eight floors up.” He knows that the flat is cold, but rather than describe the cold, he guides us through the mental accounting that it would take to heat the place: “I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped packets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-dried lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that would warm the room. So I went to the far side of the street to look up at the roof in the rain and see if any chimneys were going, and how the smoke blew. There was no smoke and I thought about how the chimney would be cold and might not draw and of the room possibly filling with smoke, and the fuel wasted, and the money gone with it, and I walked on in the rain.”

Paris 3Next Hemingway takes us out on the streets, where, along with him,  “. . . [we] walk on in the rain. [We walk] down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St-Etienne-du Mont and the windswept Place du Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally [come] out on the lee side of the Boulevard St-Michel and [work] on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St-Germain until [we come] to a good café that [we know] on the Place St-Michel.” Hemingway doesn’t describe the streets or the buildings, but he names places, creating a sense that the reader knows them as familiar landmarks. He gives us a sense of the meandering route along the narrow streets, and he uses enough sensory detail for us to imagine hunching our shoulders as we cross the “windswept Place du Pantheon” and we feel a sense of relief as we “cut in for shelter” from the wind.

Finally, in the “good café” that is on the Place St-Michel, Hemingway convinces us that his Paris is our Paris. As he is writing his story about Michigan—most likely “The Three Day Blow”—and “since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story,”  he sees a girl come in the café and sit by herself at a table, where she is obviously waiting for someone to meet her there. He wishes he could put her into the story but doesn’t. He is distracted by her and can’t focus on the story until he plants this final illusion in the reader’s mind: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

paris 2That is the illusion of Paris. It is a city that prints itself so large in our imagination that we feel we can own it and make it ours. Like Humphrey Bogart said at the end of Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.” I would like to think that it is true, but I don’t. And none of this is to say that I don’t love the city. I do. I’ll go back, and I’ll have a good time. But deep down I know, that as much as I’d like to think Paris belongs to me, all I can do is quote another Hemingway book, The Sun Also Rises:  “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

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