Tag Archives: Shakespeare and Company

A Moveable Feast

“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.”

A Moveable FeastBegun in the autumn of 1957 and published posthumously in 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast captures what it meant to be young and poor and writing in Paris during the 1920s. A Moveable Feast is considered by many to contain some of his best writing.

A correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 with his young wife, Hadley, and baby son, Bumby (John), and the ambition to be a great writer. In that small tranquil world there was no need for a formal introduction. Everybody frequented the same cafés and ate in the same restaurants. Acquaintances were easily made and in a very short time Hemingway knew everyone who was someone÷or destined to be.

This was three years after the trauma of the Great War and at the beginning of the transformation of Europe’s cultural landscape: Braque and Picasso were experimenting with cubist forms; James Joyce, long living in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, had just completed Ulysses; Gertrude Stein held court at 27 rue de Fleurus, and deemed young Ernest a member of une génération perdue; and T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk in London.

According to Hemingway, there was nothing lost about his generation. There was no movement, nor any tight bands of pot-smoking nihilists wandering around looking for a cause. There were a lot of people of the same age who had been through the war, and they came to Paris to write or compose or do whatever they had in mind. Paris gave them the freedom they needed.

His territory ran the length of the Boulevard Montparnasse from the Closerie des Lilas at the Observatoire to the Restaurant du Petit Trianon opposite the railway station, and by one route or another down to Saint Germain-des-Prés and the Seine.

Closerie des Lilas

Among these small, reflective sketches are unforgettable encounters with the members of Hemingway’s rag-tag circle of artists and writers, some also fated to achieve fame and glory, others to fall into obscurity. Some of the prominent people to make an appearance in the book include Aleister Crowley, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Hilaire Belloc, John Dos Passos, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

Hemingway spends a great deal of time in the cafes, drinking and eating rather well for a pittance. His kindest comments are about Sylvia Beach, the American who ran an English bookstore called Shakespeare and Company — it was a hangout for English-speaking authors and others, and was an oasis for individuals seeking English-language books.

Ernest and Hadley HemingwayHe depicts his genteel poverty and his obsession with gambling on horse races. He is deeply in love for most of the book with Hadley, who loses all of his manuscripts at a train station. He courts influential people such as Ford Madox Ford, who is described very unfavourably, and has great admiration for war veterans. His artist friend Pascin invites him to share his models, but he declines.

His friend Ezra Pound is trying to get up a collection for T. S. Eliot to rescue him from mundane bank work. He teaches Pound boxing. He cuts off his friendship with Gertrude Stein, repulsed by her lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas. He debates the merits of Dostoevsky with poet Evan Shipman. Ezra Pound charges him with delivering opium to the addicted poet Ralph Dunning, but Dunning rejects the help. Hemingway devotes three chapters to the very annoying F. Scott Fitzgerald and his hawkish and manipulative wife Zelda.

In the bittersweet final chapter, he describes an idyllic time spent in the Austrian Alps with Hadley. Pauline Pfeiffer arrives and an affair develops which eventually destroys his marriage.

It was during these years that the as-of-yet unpublished young writer gathered the material for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and the subsequent masterpieces that followed.

“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

This is the Paris that Hemingway knew as a young man – a map drawn in his distinct prose of the streets and cafés and bookshops that made up the city where he, as a young writer, sometimes struggling against the cold and hunger of near poverty, honed the skills of his craft.

Time Was Soft There

“Hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter…. Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt.”

Earlier we blogged about Shakespeare & Company, an English-language bookstore which sits just across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In its two incarnations, it served generations of authors such as James Joyce, Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

So it was with sweet anticipation that I picked up Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There at the library, hoping for a personal glimpse into the bohemian life in the eccentric world of George Whitman. The book is subtitled “A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare and Company

“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes… That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

Time Was Soft ThereMercer’s visit to Paris was not entirely of his own choosing. In 1999, Mercer was a young crime reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, with a couple of true crime books under his belt. Unfortunately, he had indiscreetly outed one of his contacts and, after receiving a threatening note and experiencing a break-in, he fled for his life. He ended up in Paris, penniless.

It did not take him long to discover the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where George Whitman was legendary for offering bed and sustenance to those in need.

On the book’s dustjacket, one reads that he “found himself invited to a tea party among the riffraff of the timeless Left Bank fantasy known as Shakespeare & Co. In its present incarnation, Shakespeare & Co. has become a destination for writers and readers the world over, trying to reclaim the lost world of literary Paris in the 1920s. Having been inspired by Sylvia Beach’s original store, the present owner, George Whitman, invites writers who are down and out in Paris to live and dream amid the bookshelves in return for work. Jeremy Mercer tumbled into this literary rabbit hole, found a life of camaraderie with the other eccentric residents, and became, for a time, George Whitman’s confidant and right-hand man.”

Mercer does go on, in this reader’s view, about his own importance and the deprivations he suffered. And his titillation at petty crime can be a little wearing.

Regardless, Mercer’s account of life at the bookstore is entertaining, and his portrait of George Whitman lovingly details his whimsies and contradictions. His stories of the other bookstore denizens - exotic Nadia,  rival  Kurt who is constantly polishing his unfinished screenplay, Simon the neurotic British poet – tell us a little about why they are there: travel and adventure, scholarships, disillusionment. The details are there: the petty rivalries; the formation of lifetime friendships; the many rituals adopted as the “tumbleweeds” adapt to the quirky requirements of bookstore residency: writing their biography, reading a book a day, and helping out with the constant cleaning chores.

But so little is said about the Paris of the imagination which conjures up visions of poets in cafes and painters in garrets.  Perhaps this reader wanted to see more of that magic and less straight journalism, and perhaps reality never has the same loveliness as dreams. After all, during a return to Paris several years later, even Mercer noted that things had changed since he was part of Shakespeare & Company.

Time Was Soft There is rather like a nice postcard of the Eiffel Tower. It leaves out the soul of the city that has inspired more creativity than any other.

Eiffel Tower Postcard