Ernest Hemingway’s ghost has long since fled the Place Contrescarpe, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, and is likely easier found now in San Sebastian, Havana or Ketchum.
But Paris being Paris, the building where he lived in the early 1920s, “very poor and very happy” with his wife and newborn son, still stands.
I discovered this on a visit last weekend, when my wife and I walked up the winding Rue Cardinal Lemoine, away from the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
There are more famous literary landmarks in the City of Light, and more famous Hemingway ones even.
But, on a pristine Parisian afternoon this small symbol of domesticity, hope, ambition and youth in a life later strewn with great success and personal wreckage was our destination.
The book which brought us there was A Moveable Feast, the collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in Cuba in his last, declining years, at a remove of almost half a century from “the early days”, as he described them, spent as a journalist and sometimes-starving writer eking out a living in the cafes of Montparnasse.
The work famously contains distilled and stripped portraits of fellow writers, not least Hemingway’s fellow ex-pats Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (revealing how the latter borrowed her famous ‘lost generation’ comment from a local mechanic, no less). But written into and between these accounts are fascinating small details of the writer’s day-to-day acts of work, love, eating and drinking.
Clare and I had travelled to Paris from Dublin exhausted, pulled taut by stress, sleep-deprived and weary. Hemingway’s accounts of a less-complicated (on the surface only, of course) domestic and working life had appealed to us for sometime. And so we found ourselves outside a chipped blue door, beneath a simple white plaque, stepping aside as a resident returned home with her shopping.
In 1922 Hemingway lived with Hadley Richardson on the third floor at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, “a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor”.
Lunch there was “little radishes, and a good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart”.
Rising early Hemingway walked to work daily, to a garret-room at a nearby hotel on Rue Descartes, where he would attempt to write “one true sentence, and then go on from there”. He later declared: “Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now.”
Sitting on the Place Contrescarpe, dry and bright unlike its rain-lashed, impoverished appearance at the opening of A Moveable Feast, Clare and I discussed these simple pleasures and truisms.
Very poor rarely means very happy. And the opposite is not the case, either. So we go on seeking the balance. Some days or hours or nights, we find it.
That evening we returned to our rented apartment and later walked the hill at Montmartre to look on Paris below. Hungry, we went on to Le Comptoir des Belettes on Rue Lamarck, where we ate tartines and characturie and drank rose.
Then we returned home to the night breeze on our balcony, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur above and the murmur of the streets below.
And we were happy.
All quotes in this post are from A Moveable Feast