Hemingway, an aspiring writer in his early twenties, walked the Boulevard du Montparnasse to reach his apartment a hundred times. Now as I stroll the boulevard, glancing at the unexceptional buildings in blinking wonder, I am struck by the universality of existence. Hemingway, like many other artists (the Fitzgeralds, Stein, Joyce, Cummings, Man Ray, Picasso, Dali) sought refuge in Paris during the 1920’s, inspired by Parisian romance, inexpensive alcohol and overindulgence. The lifestyle of a young expatriate has often generated hedonism, probably due to the timelessness of being transitory: the past nonexistent and the future transparent. Consequences fail to exist. Past routines and restrictions are disassembled and forgotten, and even the currency, flashy and foreign, seems insignificant.
Here I am, twenty-two years old, walking the same streets and surrounded by the same architecture, stumbling through my youth, attempting to build literary opportunities for myself and to create something that will accurately portray everything that has been building inside of me since my birth. I think how beautiful and carefree Hemingway’s life—all their lives—must have been: Paris during the Roaring Twenties, passing through the summer of a thousand parties, all good fun and intellect and artistic brilliance. In reality, their lives were no different than mine. They had heartache. They had dysfunction. They were unsure of themselves and their careers and their futures. They felt hopeless and directionless some days and inspired and driven others.
I seek comfort in this as I continue my unofficial tour of the Paris Hemingway would have travelled. I start with La Closerie desLilas. Frequented by popular French artists in the decades before Hemingway’s arrival, Hemingway used the heated terraces to write his drafts and the bar to fuel his inspiration. The menu was too expensive for me to visit for lunch, but I’ll return in the summer months, when I can profit from its beautiful, vine-covered terraces. Website: http://www.closeriedeslilas.fr
A short walk up the boulevard, down a tiny side road called Rue Delambre, is the Auberge de Venise. Now a mediocre Italian restaurant, the building once housed the Dingo Bar, one of the few establishments that stayed open all night in Paris during the 1920’s. Hemingway met Fitzgerald at this American bar during the first of many late night drinking romps.
I see more bookstores in Montparnasse than anywhere else in Paris. Whether they existed in the twenties or were encouraged by the literary presence in the district I don’t know. The bookstore I search for, however, is a metro ride away to the Latin Quartier. The original Shakespeare & Company, opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, offered unending hospitality and companionship to struggling artists. Since its conception the shop has changed locations several times, and in 1951 George Whitman continued Beach’s dream of cultivating artistic innovation and a bohemian atmosphere in the shop’s current location on Rue de la Bucherie.
Situated just across from the Notre Dame on the left bank, I can’t believe how many times I’ve passed by the area without knowing that the bookshop existed. I feel as if my intuition should have pulled me down the small cobblestone alley during one of my other trips to Paris. When I finally arrive I feel the old building emanating comfort and encouragement: welcome home, it seems to say.
Even the exterior is every bit as enchanting as I had hoped it would be. Painted wooded letters hang above the window display, which showcases a wide assortment of American novels. The store is split into two, with antique books for sale on the left and current American literature on the right. A sign, hand painted by George Whitman, reminds me again of the universality of existence, stating, “This store has rooms like chapters in a novel and the fact is Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are more real to me than my next door neighbours and even stranger to me is the fact that even before I was born Dostoyevsky wrote the story of my life…”
Readers crowd around two trees which have chairs built around their trunks, while tourists page through boxes of books and postcards. I enter and the crisp, fresh smell of new books hits me. The first floor is crowded with tourists, but nevertheless, I enjoy the cramped space and overflowing shelves. I recognize familiar titles that evoke nostalgia for the stories I’ve already travelled, and I encounter new novels that entice me to explore their eager wisdom.
On the second floor, after climbing a staircase decorated with painted portraits of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein, among others, is an eclectic informal library with plenty of comfy reading nooks. Bookshelves cover the walls, from the chipped and scuffed tile floor to the ceiling’s wooden beams. A game of chess sits untouched next to a rocking chair in the corner, magazines from the 1950’s are littered across an end table, and a man begins an impromptu concert at the piano, which sways as he presses the keys.
I curl up next to a wall covered in notes, photos, love letters, aspirations and declarations, and for once in my life I allow myself to simply exist. I don’t think about the responsibilities I have later in the day, any regrets that continue to haunt me, or my lack of concrete plans for the future. In this moment, with books surrounding me and other literature lovers passing by, I am content. In this moment I am exactly where I am supposed to be.