Sunday, April 10, 2011
POSTCARDS FROM FRANCE, 2: HECTOR LASSITER'S PARIS
My newest novel, ONE TRUE SENTENCE, is set during one week in February, 1924, in Paris.
In that novel, we see a 24-year-old Hector Lassiter, and his friend, Ernest Hemingway, both not yet known as the writers they will become, living and moving along the Left Bank of the Seine, primarily in the area known as Montparnasse. That's where all those great writers of the 1920s more or less were based: the photographers, the painters...those wicked surrealists.
It's where the famous cafés in which they wrote, drank and talked are centered — La Rotonde, Le Select, Le Dôme and La Coupole and Hemingway's own favored café, a bit of walk from those other four, La Closerie des Lilas.
Two weeks ago, I was walking the streets Hector Lassiter and Ernest Hemingway walked. In a kind of post-modern turn, I found myself using my own novel as a sort of guidebook for morning and evening tours of the quarter around interviews my French publisher had scheduled for me in the City of Lights.
ONE TRUE SENTENCE will not be published in Paris until sometime in 2012. The novel of mine that is currently new in Paris is PRINT THE LEGEND, which does include a couple of brief scenes set in 1920s Paris. (My French publisher, Belfond, calls the novel ON NE MEURT QU'UNE FOIS.)
Somehow, perhaps deliberately, when I left a crime conference in Lyon, France to spend a couple of days in Paris with reporters, videographers and photographers, I was booked into a newly refurbished ancient hotel at 9 rue de la Grande Chaumière, the Hotel Best Western La Villa de Artistes.
If I turned left out my hotel door and walked to the corner, I was just yards from the Rotonde, the Select and the Coupole — all those cafés Hector and Hem would sit inside during the winter, or on the terrace if it was warmer, watching the street traffic.
If I turned right out my hotel door, in a very few yards, the street terminated at rue Notre Dame des Champs. That's the street that Hemingway lived on in 1924, shortly after returning to France after a brief and disastrous return to journalism in Toronto, awaiting the birth of his first son. It's the street where Ezra Pound maintained (a seldom used) studio.
Turning left onto the rue Notre Dame des Champs takes one to La Rue Vavin — the street upon which Hector lived in Paris and, specifically, in ONE TRUE SENTENCE. This street view is taken from La Rue Vavin's terminus at the Jardins de Luxembourg. It's established Hector lived on the fourth floor of a building on this street (in France, you don't count the ground floor as number one).
If you walk up Vavin in this direction, you pass by the (now being restored) facade of the building in which the primary action of "Last Tango in Paris" was supposed to have been set. Continue on to the corner, and you reach this famous watering hole.
Following a rainy Sunday night train ride through the countryside from Lyon to Paris, Svetlana Pironko of Author Rights Agency, the first reader outside the inner circle to have made Hector Lassiter's acquaintance and his agent abroad, met me at the train station. I checked into hotel, then we headed to Le Select for dinner and drinks. There I also made the acquaintance of Mickey, the café's venerable cat, who is, by all accounts, somewhere around the quarter century mark, but still relatively spry. Mickey is so famous and beloved, he has a framed photograph of himself above his favorite perch at the bar. I watched to see if he sampled any of the dregs of drinks left languishing on the bar — something that might explain his longevity — but never saw him take a taste.
After dinner, we passed through others of the famous cafés, walked Hector's street to the Gardens, and to the approximate spot where Hemingway's second Paris apartment would have been located. (Svetlana noted, ruefully, many historic buildings, including Hemingway's, were lost in the 1970s. Their replacements, to be charitable, are undistinguished, at best.)
That first night established something quickly: One walks in Paris. I believe I took two cabs in two days there — one to lunch my last full day in Paris, and one to the airport.
Knowing Paris first and most vividly through Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST, and having some sense of the places he'd walk any given day — and taking into account the hilliness of that quarter of Paris — I was struck by something that must have troubled Hem, particularly. Hemingway suffered severe injuries to his legs in World War 1, and actually had a reconstructed kneecap. Having twisted my ankle on a bad landing off a stage in Lyon, and now walking a hell of a lot, I figured those first couple of years in Paris, particularly, must have been murder on a fairly gimpy, if young, Papa.
That night, flummoxed by my room's temperature control system, I slept with the windows open, listening to the city and two doves that nested outside my window. Awakening the next morning, I looked out my window at the view across the rooftops of Paris. My hotel, believed by one clerk to date back to the 1700s, backed up against equally old structures. In the morning dark, before the satellite dishes and TV aerials presented themselves, it was easy to imagine the view circa 1924.
The next two days, I was visited at my hotel by magazine, newspaper, online and television interviewers. Photographers also dropped by, and we walked around the Quarter, snapping shots at Hemingway sites and other suitably dramatic backdrops.
Evenings were my own and my family at last joined me in Paris the last two nights. Crossing the Jardins de Luxembourg in a drizzling, cooling rain, we visited Hemingway's old quarter, where he first lived as an unknown writer in a working class section of narrow streets behind the Panthéon. Appropriately, there is now a bookstore under the apartment where Hemingway lived and wrote during his tyro days in the City of Lights.
74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine was where Hem and first wife Hadley lived for many of Hem's formative writing years in Paris. It was from this location he would leave on European assignments as a correspondent for papers back in Canada and the States.
Around the corner, there's another historic Hemingway sign which has history about half right. It claims Hemingway lived above the café now there for several years. Story from Hem himself goes, in the building, one in which the poet Paul Verlaine died, Ernest rented an upper room in which to write. It's in this room, blocked, that Hem describes in A MOVEABLE FEAST his attempts to calm himself with the assurance he need only write "one true sentence."
The last of my Paris interviews was held on a Tuesday afternoon at this restaurant called Kong.
ONE TRUE SENTENCE opens with a scene set on one of the most noted bridges across the Seine, the Pont Neuf. As fate would have it, Kong is located under a glass canopy of an old building overlooking the Pont Neuf.
After lunch, Svetlana and I more or less retraced Hector's walk from the bridge back along the Seine and eventually to his home on the Rue Vavin...a walk he made in light snow in February, and we made in coming rain in late March. We passed Notre Dame and the book stalls Hemingway remembers in his memoir frequenting. Browsing there, I saw French editions of James Crumley, James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell. Later that evening, I shared a similar walk with my wife and daughters.
A key figure in ONE TRUE SENTENCE is the American bookseller Sylvia Beach who ran Shakespeare and Company — a kind of bookstore, lending library and mail office for expatriate writers. She also published ULYSSES by James Joyce. Nazi occupation pretty much killed the original bookstore, but a new one in another location up against the Seine sprang up several decades ago.
For me, the association with the bookstore is Hemingway, even if he never set foot in this version.
My daughters, Madeleine and Yeats, on the other hand, tend to think of the bookstore as the one under which the world's oldest Immortal, Methos, lives, as established in the syndicated series, Highlander.
For our last evening in Paris, my wife, Debbie, Svetlana and I, journeyed by Metro to this particular café, another of Hemingway's prime spots and one immortalized in A MOVEABLE FEAST (pictured below is Svetlana and I, taken by Debbie). It is also in Les Deux Magots where Hector Lassiter shares his first dinner with the pivotal woman in his life, Brinke Devlin. We sat out on the terrace of Magots with Svetlana, facing the street as one typically does on the terraces, watching night settle over the City of Lights.
In a bookstore next door, we found a copy of this volume:
For a last toast in Paris, it seemed only appropriate to end where it began, at Hector's probably most-frequented café, on the corner of his street, in the heart of the section of Paris he loved best.
"Il n’y a que deux endroits au monde où l’on puisse vivre heureux: chez soi et à Paris." —Ernest Hemingway
("There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.")