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Discovering Papa Hemingway

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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ah, Papa Hemingway! An author I’ve tended to avoid over the years because of

a. the animal cruelty
b. the macho quality

However, I have had a copy of “A Moveable Feast” knocking around for years, mainly because it has reminiscences of Gertrude Stein; but it was a fairly nasty old paperback and so a chance picking up of a new and decent copy actually had me picking it up. Somehow, non-fiction seems to appeal at the moment and so this seemed a good way to try out Hem’s prose.

a-moveable-feast

“Feast” was written in the latter part of Hemingway’s life, being finished shortly before his death, and covers his life in Paris in the 1920s. He was at the time married to Hadley, and they had a small son Bumby; Hem was trying to scratch out a living as a writer, and the family lived as cheaply as they could, existing on his meagre earnings with handouts from Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co from time to time. Nevertheless, this was the place to be at the time, as you could mix with Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and of course the Fitzgeralds. And oddly enough, one of my recent reads turns up too:

The Closerie de Lilas had once been a cafe where poets met more or less regularly and the last principal poet had been Paul Fort whom I had never read. But the only poet I ever saw there was Blaise Cendrars, with his broken boxer’s face and his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand. He was a good companion until he drank too much and, at that time, when he was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly. But he was the only poet who came into the Lilas and I only saw him there once.

hem in paris

Hemingway’s prose turned out to be much better than I expected; I had heard much about his love of simple, unadorned writing but I think that’s a little deceptive. Hem’s writing may appear straightforward but it’s not; it’s well constructed, descriptive and quite evocative. What’s also fascinating is his view of the characters he meets; Lewis is described as unpleasant, Joyce a distant figure of admiration, Stein complex and difficult, and Pound as one of the nicest and kindest people Hem knows. This latter is particularly intriguing as by the time the book was written, Pound had gone from being reviled to a forgotten figure because of his views during WW2. Hemingway must have known this, of course, but still had plenty of nice things to say about the disgraced poet; which makes me keen to explore Pound and his life and work more.

Hem, Hadley and Bumby

Hem, Hadley and Bumby

A fair chunk of this book is made up of Hemingway’s recollections of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and these are fascinating. Scott comes across as eccentric, hypochondriac, obsessed with Zelda and yet unable to write while he’s around her. I did sense a certain misogyny in Hemingway’s attitudes – it’s there in his view of Gertrude Stein and also in the way he writes about Zelda. He obviously doesn’t like her, and his judgements of her seem simplistic, especially as it’s clear nowadays what a complex and troubled woman she was. Nevertheless, his affection for Scott shines through, and also for his Paris years when he and his family were poor but happy.

I enjoyed my first experience of Hemingway much more than I expected, and there are several more works of fiction available to me, as well as his journalism. So I don’t think this read will be a one-off….!

Recent Reads – The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

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The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

beautifulwalk
It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

rue maubert part - george hann

The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

Recent Reads: Rilke in Paris

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“Rilke in Paris” is another treasure from Hesperus Press, a slim volume that was published last year. Rainer Maria Rilke is best known as a poet and the author of one novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, and also for his intense friendships with other artists across different fields of work, from Rodin to Pasternak. Wikipedia describes him as “a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist … widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.”

rilke in paris

He wrote in German but Paris was an adopted city for him, and this book covers his time in the French capital, which is where he conceived and wrote much of the “Notebooks”.

“Paris, of light and silk, faded once and for all time, as far as it skies and its waters, to the heart of its flowers, with the overpowering sun of its kings. Paris, in May, her white communicants who pass amidst the people, swathed in veils, like little stars, sure of their path and their hearts, for which they rise, set out and shine…”

The book is made up of  Maurice Betz’s essays on Rilke’s time in Paris (Betz was Rilke’s French translator) along with introduction and notes on the text by translator Will Stone. There is also a little gem at the end of the book in the form of a new translation of the prose poem “Notes on the Melody of Things” which rarely sees the light of day in other languages.

The essays are a fascinating insight into Rilke’s mind and way of working; they are generously sprinkled with extracts from his letters and Betz draws illuminating parallels between Rilke’s life in Paris and the way this ended up being portrayed in the “Notebooks”. Rilke lived through a turbulent era, including the First World War years, and left Paris several times only to be drawn back again.

Both Rilke and Betz use language which is rich and ornate and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, Rilke was definitely a one-off and this book is certainly a celebration of the poet as an outsider, a loner, which Rilke seems to have been, despite his numerous friendships and love affairs. He seems to have been constantly searching for the ideal state of mind to write, and solitude often seemed the solution.

“His life was a perpetual flight before social and human realities, towards that abstraction which is solitude, towards that preservation of the absolute that is infinite desire, nostalgia eternally unsatisfied, and towards those superior states of consciousness which give access, in the midst of the most beautiful and sorrowful landscapes of life, to the contemplation of death.”

The prose poem itself is very beautiful and dreamy, contemplating the human condition and the need for society versus solitude:

It occurs to me: with this observation:
that we still paint figures again a
gold background, like the early Primitives.
Before the indeterminate they stand,
sometimes of gold, sometimes of grey.
Sometimes in the light and often with,
behind them, an inscrutable darkness.

(on art)

It has proved that each lives on their island;
only the island are not distant enough that we might
live peacefully and in solitude. One can disturb another
or terrify them, or pursue them with spears – only
no-one cannot help no-one.

My one reservation with this book has nothing to do with the contents as such, but the fact that there is nothing in it about the translator! Normally Hesperus Press books have a little bit on the translator, but there was no indication at all as to who Will Stone was, apart from the fact that he wrote his foreword in Suffolk! This is all the more surprising as the final form of the book is very much dictated by him – his translation of the Betz and the prose poem; his notes on the places; and the fact that this volume is beautifully illustrated by photos taken by him. When I searched online it seems that he is a poet himself and also translates regularly. He has been very involved in the production of a lovely book here and should have had a little more recognition in it in my view!

rainer_maria_rilke

Despite this, I highly recommend this to any lovers of Paris and poetry. Rilke had an epistolary friendship with Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, the book of which is currently moving up my tbr – I’m looking forward to discovering more about this intense poet!

Paris in July: Paris by Julian Green

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If you’re a book obsessive like me, you’ll know the delights and the dangers the Internet can bring. Tracking down of volumes in the past used to by trawling through second hand bookshops and new titles and authors came via word of mouth or reviews in magazines and newspapers. But nowadays the sky’s the limit with the different online sellers and all the lovely blogs with recommendations of what to read next.

This book was another that I stumbled upon whilst reading a literary blog (alas, I can’t recall which one). The cover intrigued me, and it was about Paris (a city I love to read about) so I invested in a copy – Penguin dual language edition with illustrations. I’d never heard of Julian Green (who seems to sometimes be spelt Julien) but the Penguin site says this about him and the book:

Julian Green was born to American parents in Paris in 1900, and spent most of his life in the French capital. Paris is an extraordinary, lyrical love letter to the city, taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places. Whether evoking the cool of a deserted church on a hot summer’s day, remembering Notre Dame in a winter storm in 1940, describing chestnut trees lit up at night like ‘Japanese lanterns’ or lamenting the passing of street cries and old buildings, his book is filled with unforgettable imagery. It is a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to know a city.

Having read the book I can say that oddly enough, this is not hyperbole! It’s a slim little volume made up of a collection of short pieces which are sometimes more like prose poems than anything else. Green describes lost areas and eras of Paris, places from his past and meditates on possible futures of the city. The little vignettes are beautifully written and very evocative. Green’s deep love of Paris is evident and the writing transports the reader to a city which probably no longer exists.

As an example of the beauty of the language in this book, this small section comes from a piece called Parisian Landscape, where Green is describing artists’ views of Paris:

“We are a long way from Baudelaire’s city of stone and marble, but poets carry in their hearts the tragic vision of their desires. They did not see that dark landscape, our painters; they made shadows with bright colours and looked with the eyes of children upon gardens, rainshowers and busy streets; and beneath the great white clouds that traverse their skies from end to end they restore to us a happy Paris, the city of light.”

I loved this book – reading it over a couple of sessions transported me and gave me quite an itch to visit Paris! I see that Julian Green has written a number of novels so I shall be looking out for them on my bookbuying travels.

Paris in July: Maigret’s Pipe by Simenon

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I had earmarked “The Ripening Seed” by Colette for my Paris in July read, but the mood was not right so I confess I abandoned it. I’ve learnt that there’s no point forcing reading – you’ve got to read what you want, when you want or it just doesn’t work. Instead, I was drawn to a nice thick volume of Maigret short stories, “Maigret’s Pipe”, which I recently picked up. I read the first story, which is a longish short story, over the weekend and was as usual bowled over by Simenon’s control of a story.

The setting was, as ever, Maigret’s Paris. Even when he’s away from the place, he’s a Parisian, and he’s always uncomfortable out of his own environment. The streets of the city feature in all the stories and in my imagination they’re always black and white and rainy! However, to the story at hand!

By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Maigret’s Pipe” is a clever tale which begins with the great detective mislaying his favourite smoking aid, his briar pipe. Irritated by the loss, he can’t settle till he goes back over the events of the day, trying to work out when he last had it. What appears to be a simple matter leads on to a much more complex crime and situation and as usual with Simenon, I had absolutely no idea of the solution! I haven’t read many Maigret short stories and I did wonder how the character would work in a truncated setting. But as usual, the tale was enjoyable, atmospheric and entertaining. What I love about Simenon’s writing is how he can conjure up a place or person very simply in a few sentences – he brings what is probably a lost Paris alive! I hope to read more of the stories in this book as July goes on but for now” Maigret’s Pipe” has transported me to the City of Light!

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