Cit. Lit.: A Moveable Feast

When does Joyce come in?

When does Joyce come in?

If Paris has a literary accompaniment, at least in English, it’s got to be A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s half-remembered and half-invented memoir of Paris and the expatriate community of artists and opportunists that populated the left bank and our shared mythology of the Latin Quarter in the twenties.

If you’re visiting Paris for a short time then you should probably read it before you go but if you’ve got the time then my strong recommendation is to read A Moveable Feast while you’re actually in Paris, as an accompanying narration.

The quality of the book is kind of irrelevant to the exercise of using it to complement a visit to Paris but the fact is it’s a compelling read with an economy of language that renders almost every single sentence its own isolated little poem. Take this, for instance:

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.

Well that’s cheery, isn’t it? Obviously it’s not meant to be but it’s an ideal thought to bandy about in your head on an autumn day in Luxembourg Gardens, kicking leaves and reminiscing of the days when Hem would strangle pigeons here to feed his family.

If you’re not hungry for pigeon, you can follow Hemingway to some of his favourite restaurants:

The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café when we lived down the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the top floor of the pavilion in the courtyard with the sawmill, and it was one of the nicest cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.

The Closerie des Lilas is still there and still operating and still one of the nicest cafés in Paris, if a little upmarket compared to the twenties. Les Deux Magots on St Germain has changed considerably less, and it requires little effort to visualise any of the conversations which took place there between Hemingway and James Joyce and described in A Moveable Feast.

Hemingway lived at several addresses in the Latin Quarter and the book itself makes an excellent walking tour. He lived at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine:

The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color and in the moonlight when they worked the rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled, horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings.

And 39 rue Descartes:

There was no quarter too poor to have at least one copy of a racing paper but you had to buy it early on a day like this. I found one in the rue Descartes at the corner of the Place Contrescarpe. The goats were going down the rue Descartes and I breathed the air in and walked back fast to climb the stairs and get my work done. I had been tempted to stay out and follow the goats down the early-morning street.

And of course he was a regular visitor to the apartment of Gertrude Stein and her quiet lover, Alice Toklas, at 27 rue de Fleurus:

I saw my wife trying not to look at the strange, steerage clothes that Miss Stein wore and she was successful. When they left we were still popular, I thought, and we were asked to come again to 27 rue de Fleurus.

It was later on that I was asked to come to the studio any time after five in the winter time. I had met Miss Stein in the Luxembourg. I cannot remember whether she was walking her dog or not, nor whether she had a dog then. I know that I was walking myself, since we could not afford a dog nor even a cat then, and the only cats I knew were in the cafés or small restaurants or the great cats that I admired in concierges’ windows.

Now if it turns out that you don’t have a copy of A Moveable Feast this is good news because there’s a new edition with some “found chapters” and it represents another opportunity to follow Hemingway to one of his favourite haunts:

In those days there was no money to buy books. Books you borrowed from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon. On a cold windswept street, this was a lovely, warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.

Shakespeare and Company has moved but it’s still the friend to writers that Sylvia Beach established in the twenties to provide cheap English literature, support the artistic community and, famously, publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would touch it. And it’s still very near Odéon, just next to Place St Michel and across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral and they’ll be happy to sell you a copy of A Moveable Feast.



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