Hemingway — Paris in the 1920s

Thursday, October 8, 2015
F: 4:50 a.m. So, let’s talk, finally, about the opportunity that Pauline’s Catholicism was to you.
EH: You say finally and to you it means, after so many days. To me it means, after so many decades.
F: It isn’t entirely unplowed ground.
EH: No, but I’d count about three scholars, and for the rest of it, a big silence.
F: Well, here’s your chance. I can remember [H.R.] Stoneback, but I can’t recall the name of the other scholar whose book I read a few months ago with great gratitude that he saw you. [I had to go back through my Amazon orders to find him: Matthew C. Nickel, Hemingway’s Dark Night.]
EH: Yes, like the time you couldn’t remember Reynolds’ name, when he was still new to you. Nothing to worry about, and if you ask yourself why I can’t remember just because you can’t, you might turn that question on its side and realize that the information flows through you, the way you’re doing it, so of course it’s going to jam up.
F: “The way I do it.”
EH: Well, you are an intrinsic part of the process, aren’t you? You aren’t a trance channel and you aren’t – how shall we put it – you aren’t passive although you are receptive. This method of communication has its unusual opportunities and its unusual frustrations.

F: Interesting. So the very things I have wondered about, worried about, are things that stem from its authenticity, the authenticity I worried about.
EH: That’s a valid way to see it. Someone else doing the same thing will experience it somewhat differently.
F: Okay. So –
EH: So maybe the place to start is with the expatriates in Paris in the 1920s. It was quite a diverse group, that changed over time, and as you know not everybody went to Paris for the same reason. For some, the devaluation of the Franc, combined with an assured continuous supply of American dollars, made it a cheap place to live. And there was the culture – mean, it was Paris! And there were the collection of writers and painters, a group that for a while couldn’t be matched anywhere in the world. Also there were the empty-headed scum, the jet set of the time, people with more money than was good for them, bored, trivial, flighty, empty. A mixed bag, you’d say.
Among my set – thanks to Sherwood Anderson, he’s the one who opened the doors – were the writers and artists. Not that there weren’t plenty of empty heads among them too – and the egos! The pretenses! – the poses that outweighed the substance, and the collective herd instinct that overwhelmed the necessary solitude of thought, and the ones who drank in public and talked about the work they were going to do, but didn’t spend the time doing it, and that time is always solitary.
F: Charged subject still, I see.
EH: Yes and you know why. But I was never one who posed or caroused rather than work. I worked might and main, and then I played. It makes all the difference.
F: Understood.
EH: The Paris crowd – this international art crowd, mixed with locals, it wasn’t all Americans and English, by a long shot, and I never let language be a barrier for very long anyway – this crowd was very conscious of itself in an “us against the world” kind of way, as maybe artists always are. They thought of themselves – we thought of ourselves – as being self-selected from the herd.
F: Did I get that right, or did I just put in my own stuff there?
EH: A little, but close enough anyway. The point is, we were a set of overlapping rings, more or less held together by our calling, or at least by what we wanted to be or become, regardless of whether we had the talent to make it happen. And that circle had its own generally shared set of assumptions, as you can imagine. But there were differences depending on where you started.
The Americans, the Englishmen, were almost all born Protestant. [Only as I typed this up did I realize that this entirely overlooks the Jews. If I remember, I’ll ask about that, next time.] The others were almost all born Catholic. Say what you want, there’s a difference that will emerge even in the way they shed their ancestral religion, if they do, and certainly in the way they see the world, if they don’t. And this has nothing to do with whether or not they are what is called “religious.” Besides that there was the cultural difference between the Americans, especially, and the products of Europe, be they Irish or Italian or French or English.
F: Or German or “other”?
EH: There weren’t a lot of Germans in Paris in 1922 and ’23, and only a smattering of other, but yes, of course, and more so as time went on until the crash changed the economics and everybody went home because Paris had changed from being an economy to being a luxury.
Well, the art set either accepted God as a fact of life or it rejected God as an outdated superstition, and as I say, the fault-line lay between Catholics and Protestants. Even an ex-Catholic in –
No, let’s stay away from generalities. Among those I knew, they might be observant Catholics – can’t think of one, offhand – or lapsed, or vehemently anti-clerical or equally vehemently, or else calmly, atheistic. No matter, their view was different. For the first time, in Europe, and more among the poor we lived among than the artists we gravitated toward – I saw the underpinnings of religion taken for granted in a way I had never seen in self-conscious striving Oak Park. You know how old ladies would sit in a church gossiping and eating lunch and nobody would think anything about it? That could never happen at home. There, God was in church, and that’s where they kept him!
F: And we’re still not getting to it.
EH: Oh, you’d be surprised. When you start by building context and then move toward the center, it takes a while but it is a more lasting result. But – seeing that you’re impatient for something more solid-seeming – remember who I was. I was an Oak Park product, a reporter, a writer of feature stories for an established paper, an apprentice writer of literature working with the best in the field – I mean, Ezra Pound was good enough for Yeats! – and I was very young and very alert and very glad to be young and in love and in Europe. All true. But I was also the boy who had gotten blown up in the war, pretty much immediately, and who never forgot it even when he could sleep with the lights off, because his knee reminded him. I was the boy whose story didn’t quite fit the facts, the boy walking carefully, hoping that this new life wouldn’t let him fall through the crust and land him back in his old life. I was the boy seeing himself as hard-boiled, as best he could, and incessantly papering over any admission that in fact he was extraordinarily sensitive – psychic, you’d call it.
While I lived with Hadley, the one side was most obvious – to me, to others. Then came the break up, which broke up the story I was telling myself – you know, starving artist and his wife making their way. For a few months, I was on my own, and those few months had their effect. If I wasn’t my cover story, who was I? if I didn’t live up to my own ideas of conduct, what was I? if I could begin to see daylight with my career – and really although it seemed to take forever while it was happening, it happened extraordinarily quickly – what did it mean, if I wasn’t who or what I had been thinking I was? If, in short, my life wasn’t how I had been thinking of it.
F: I know you aren’t implying that you had a conversion experience, but I don’t quite get what you are saying.
EH: Those few months shook me loose of my old bearings, and prepared the way for other things. If my next life, with Pauline, hadn’t been molded in a Catholic context, still it would have been different in important ways.
F: I hear, roots.
EH: Exactly. You couldn’t live uprooted. That was what was wrong with a lot of the Paris crowd. They were rejecting what they had been raised to be, and they had no inner core guiding them to something as solid, or more solid. So, they drifted.
Let me say something here that will clarify a couple of things for you. Take [James] Joyce. You could say he rejected Ireland or you could say he embodied it, or even that he did both at the same time. But neither rejecting or embodying is enough to give you the roots you need. For that, he had his art
F: As did you.
EH: As did Ezra, as did Miro and Picasso and Murphy and many – but not all – of the people who gathered and created in those years. Those who didn’t have their art, either had something at the center of their lives, or they didn’t. Marie Cocotte was firmly rooted in herself. She and her mari and her home in Brittany and her ancestral certainties. She knew who she was, because she never questioned it. Or maybe it would be better to turn that sentence around and say she never questioned because she knew.
It isn’t a matter of knowing who you are as of somehow having a center.
F: But I can feel myself running out of steam.
EH: Well, you’ve had your hour, and a little more.
F: Okay. Till later, then.

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