Saturday, 4 May 2013

Paris writers of the 1920s

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce - and artists of the calibre of Picasso and Miro. Expatriates all. What was it that made that era special? And why Paris?

For me it began with The Old Man and the Sea, my favourite novel. I loved it so much I looked at the writer behind it. Although raised continents apart, there were similarities between Ernest Hemingway's upbringing and mine. We both loved to fish and spend time outdoors. In Nick Adams - hero of the early Hemingway short stories - I recognized a kindred spirit.

My reading taught me about Hemingway's family, school, home neighbourhood, war injuries, career and marriages - his whole life. I was hooked. But let's look at Paris, the city he loved best. Like him, I knew what it took to adapt to a new country. There was something about the struggling but confident young writer that held me enthralled. What was it that turned him from novice to world-renowned author in a few short years? I trawled for facts and the more I learned the more hooked I became.

In Paris he met Scott Fitzgerald who offered writing advice and steered him towards Charles Scribner's Sons in NYC and the firm's famous editor Maxwell Perkins. The relationship with Fitzgerald soured as did almost all of Hemingway's literary friendships. Fitzgerald became a new source of interest to me: his and Zelda's marriage difficulties, his career's sharp decline. EH claimed Zelda was jealous of her husband's fame and crazy to boot. She was to end up in an institution.

James Joyce was the living writer EH most respected. In recent years Joyce has attained deity-like status in Ireland, although he had few good words to say about it during his lifetime. I had known a girl from Trieste and was fascinated to read of Joyce's time there, and of his speaking Italian when out and about in Paris.

Back then, life was very different to what we know today. To hear news of acquaintances or rivals you visited certain cafes or called in at Sylvia Beach's bookshop, Shakespeare and Co. Gertrude Stein, American writer and art collector, was a good source of knowledge about painters. Hemingway would go on to own artwork by both Picasso and Miro.

The US dollar went a long way in 1920s Europe - a continent not yet recovered from the ravages of war. Paris was beautiful, lively and cosmopolitan, different in every way to the staidness of prohibition-era America. Expatriates came and enjoyed it's gifts; and the skiing in Austria and Switzerland, the beaches of the Riviera and the magic of Spain.

EH's years in France are brilliantly captured by Paula McLain in her best-selling novel The Paris Wife.