Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

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I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the bronze of genius, all because they have a facility with words. Words have power and magic, as all sorcerers and witches have made use of for thousands of years, and we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by their binding spells, even now. It’s probably so deeply inculcated in me to worship at an author’s shrine that I couldn’t help myself.

It might also stem from honest curiosity; I really did, at one time, feel a kind of bond with Hemingway. He has said some marvellously true things about writing that I have always sought to emulate. As writers, if we let ourself ‘just write,’ instead of sitting at the feet of the Author, we discover that the Great Man wrestled with language too, and that he failed from time to time, which makes him more human and real.

Hemingway, like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, began his writing career as a journalist. In the short time that Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star he learned some stylistic lessons that would later influence his fiction. The newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy.

Hemingway later said: “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them.” Although he stayed there for only six months he relied on the Star’s style guide as a foundation for his writing: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Hemingway began to take himself seriously as a writer in Paris, initially working as foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star. His aspirations for himself as a writer changed when he became part of Gertrude Stein’s infamous literary and artistic salons, meeting modernist painters like Picasso and Juan Gris, but being influenced by older, more mature writers. This is where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it was their competitive and inspiring friendship that spurred him to write his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Paris was inexpensive in the 1920s for poor expatriate writers. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and T. S. Eliot were all drawn to the glittering center of intellectual and artistic expression in Europe. Hemingway met Ezra Pound serendipitously one day at Shakespeare and Co., pictured above (one of the two shrines where English majors tend to congregate when visiting Paris). Hemingway honed his writing skills while publishing short stories and editing The Transatlantic Review with Madox Ford.

While sitting in the now-famous, and sadly, touristy, Les Deux Magots (translation: the two figurines or statues, in this case two Chinese merchants, pictured above) I imagined Hemingway sipping a coffee, facing the street, looking out at pedestrians passing by. I visualised someone walking in and greeting him, what Hemingway said in reply, and what Paris would have been like almost 100 years ago. It was an illusion, an attempt to imagine the past and what it must have been like to be alive in that moment, but it made me feel a little bit closer to this icon of the modern American novel.

The pictures taken above include one hanging on the wall in the café, of an older Hemingway during his return to war-ravaged Paris, a city in the throes of liberation from the Germans. But I prefer to think of the young Hemingway sitting casually, one leg crossed over the other, leaning into his writer’s notebook perched on top of a tiny outdoor table under the trees on the Boulevard St. Germain, and what Paris must have been like for him, as he grew into the writer he would become.

All Writing Is Collaborative

Lady writing a letter with her maid: Vermeer, 1670-72.

Here’s why: even though I write alone at this moment, I share ideas with other writers. Other writers give me inspiration. I also could not write without outside influences affecting me, such as music, paintings, museums, films, screenplays… anything someone else has created affects me, makes me think, inspires me.  It’s one thing to have the impetus and will to begin a project; but it’s the inspiration derived from collaboration that keeps it going.

I used to think Descartes was the one writer who created alone in his garret, but it turns out I was wrong about that. It seems that he actually belonged to a collaborative group, as do almost all writers. He met with his friends at coffee houses, prevalent in the Netherlands, where Descartes spent much of his life. It was during those mostly friendly, but often argumentative, meetings that he worked out many of his theories.

There are innumerable examples of writers throughout the ages relying on one another for inspiration. Inspiration is the problem for writers and creative types, not isolation. Well, isolation is one problem, but it’s illusory. Writers never have to work alone; they do need to reach out to one another, however.

Think of the Bloomsbury Group in London (inhabited variously by Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, and others) , the Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in Oxford, and the informal literary group formed by expatriates Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein in Paris. These writers came together because they needed to talk to one another, to feel connected, to create new ideas. They stole from one another, and often got into arguments about plagiarism, but plagiarism, for writers, is the fine line between inspiration and innovation. It can be virtually impossible to know for sure who created what, when you work in collaboration. This can be a real problem, but that’s for another post.