A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
In 'A Moveable Feast', Ernest Hemingway describes a walk he took from his flat on 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine on a rainy day in the early twenties.
All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops…and the hotel where Verlaine had died, where you had a room on the top floor where you worked…I walked on in the rain. I walked down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St. Etienne-du-Mont and the windswept Place du Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St.- Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St.-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St.-Michel.
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait.
A Moveable Feast was published posthumously in 1964. In the foreword that Hemingway had planned for it, he wrote: ‘This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.’
The memoir evokes a post war Paris bursting with creativity and enthusiasm. There are colourful (sometimes malicious) portraits of many of the most important writers and artists of the time. He describes life with his wife Hadley and their son Jack (Bumby), their frequent travels, the development of his writing, and Paris, then the artistic capital of the world that he haunted by day and night.
Hemingway was a brash Midwesterner hungering for a bigger life when he and his new wife Hadley arrived in Paris in 1921. Magnetic, ebullient, adventurous, full of mirth and yarns, Hemingway could also be prickly, loud, tough and pugnacious.
As long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a writer. To help keep the wolves from the door he had secured a contract with the Toronto Star to write a series of Letters from Europe that topped up a small allowance of Hadley’s.
The twenties were a glorious time in Paris for art and literature. Amongst its vibrant community of expatriate writers and poets were James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. Paris was awash with literary hopefuls and rich hangers on. In the words of the American editor Samuel Putnam, ‘for a decade or more, Paris was a good deal nearer than New York or Chicago to being the literary capital of the United States, as far as earnest and significant writing was concerned.’
Hemingway’s artistic aim was to strip language of attitude, making the structure and words convey thought, feeling and physicality. In the process he and others created a new literary modernism, departing from the rule of Victorian fine writing with its neo-Gothic decoration, intricate structure and bookish allusions. Hemingway’s goal might sound straightforward now, but he was one of the first to break through.
The Hemingways’ two room flat was in the 5th arrondissement in what was then a poor, working class neighbourhood, at some distance from good restaurants or cafes. It was four floors up, with neither hot water nor inside toilet, but it was on a hill so the view was wonderful.
In A Moveable Feast Hemingway remembered waking on spring mornings with the windows wide open and the cobbles of the street drying after rain. A goatherd ambling up the road playing his pipes would pause to milk one of his goats directly into the container that a neighbour brought out for the purpose. In winter he and Hadley burned boulets, egg-shaped lumps of coal dust on their wood fire, which kept their flat warm and cheerful.
At the top of the street is a cobbled square known as Place de la Contrescarpe, where Hemingway described the ‘evilly run’ Café des Amateurs, with its ‘sour smell of drunkenness’ that kept him away. The Place Contrescarpe leads into the narrow and market-lined rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris. Its gutters ran purple from the dye used in those days by the flower vendors.
Finding the apartment too cramped, in the autumn of 1922 Hemingway rented a garret at 39 rue Descartes. Here in his room above the top floor of a hotel where Verlaine had died, he laboured daily on his writing. In winter it was very cold. He would climb the six or eight flights of stairs carrying mandarins and roasted chestnuts in paper packets for snacks. In A Moveable Feast he wrote that when he got stuck he would look out over the chimneys and rooftops of Paris and think to himself,
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
And finally it would come.
Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline. It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people, and noticing everything.
He experienced many setbacks, later telling his friend A.E. Hotchner,
The rejection slip is very hard to take on an empty stomach and there were times when I’d sit at that old wooden table and read one of those cold slips that had been attached to a story I had loved and worked on very hard and believed in, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Hadley helped to keep his spirits up through the hard times. ‘We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other,’ he wrote. Although the eating well didn’t happen all the time.
Hemingway also contributed a raft of stories for The Toronto Star on everything from trout fishing to the effects of German inflation. They were unusual for their time – offbeat and laconic, with a nose for bullshit. And they bore the stamp of the style he had honed at the Kansas City Star: frugal use of adjectives, and clear, straightforward sentences. Of Mussolini, then widely exalted, he wrote: ‘There is something wrong, even histrionically, with a man who wears white spats with a black shirt’.
Hemingway’s mentor, American writer Sherwood Anderson, had given him letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, the expatriate American novelist; Sylvia Beach, part owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, and the poet Ezra Pound. Hemingway realised that the people he knew would be just as important to a literary career as the ability to write well and he wanted to soak up influences like a sponge.
Meeting Stein in March 1922, he was beguiled by her take on art and life. He said she looked like an Indian but spoke like an angel. Stein was more interested in his personality than his writing but they formed a warm and cordial friendship (at first). She was one of the writers starting to use a simplified language that he in part adopted. As he wrote in his memoir, ‘She had discovered many truths about rhythms and the use of words in repetition that were valid and valuable and she talked well about them.’
When Hemingway showed her his fragment of a novel and some short stories she said there was too much decoration, too much description. She urged him to compress and concentrate his prose. From Stein he also learned to omit part of a story to make it stronger and heighten feeling. He sat at her feet while she delivered diatribes about art, life and writing, in a room resembling ‘one of the best rooms in the finest museums’. Sometimes he encouraged her to talk about books. ‘Huxley is a dead man,’ she would say. ‘Why do you want to read a dead man? Can’t you see he is dead?’
Meanwhile her lover Alice B. Toklas would talk to Hadley, and hand out delicious food and drinks. Toklas was fond of Hadley but she disliked Hemingway. She thought him ‘an opportunist concerned only with creating and nurturing his own legend’.
He later said,
A great writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
Hemingway was good at learning. He listened carefully but had way too much belief in himself to become a disciple. He took from others but was also willing to give in return, organising for Stein’s work to published in The Transatlantic Review and helping type and edit long sections of The Making of Americans for the printer.
Sylvia Beach’s bookshop was a warm, cheerful refuge from the Parisian winter. She took to the shy, impoverished young man and let him join her library immediately, deferring the fee. She loved to laugh and gossip and she became one of his earliest advocates. ‘No one that I ever knew was nicer to me’, he wrote.
With no spare cash to buy books, he borrowed heavily from her library. He read all of Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekov. He had heard Katherine Mansfield was a good, perhaps great, short story writer but after the simplicity of Chekov he found her stories were like ‘hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid’. He discovered that Dostoyevsky wrote some things that were so true, ‘they changed you as you read them’. And Tolstoy made Stephen Crane’s writing look like ‘the brilliant imagining of a sick boy’. He liked D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and The White Peacock but Stein deemed Lawrence ‘impossible’. ‘He’s pathetic and preposterous’, she told him. ‘He writes like a sick man’. But then, as Hemingway observed, Stein rarely spoke well of a writer unless they had written favourably about her own work.
Ezra Pound was forging a new style of Anglo-American poetry when Hemingway met him. He influenced Hemingway and a generation of young writers and poets. Pound was more concerned with getting his vision down on the page than chasing mass readerships. This appealed to Hemingway, as did Pound’s irascibility. Despite his crusty exterior he gave encouragement and straight answers. He taught Hemingway to distrust adjectives and to believe that there was only ever one correct word to use, the mot juste. Hemingway’s prose could be overly blunt and he borrowed from Pound’s imagist style, using it to good effect in his first groundbreaking collection of short stories, In Our Time.
In return for his support, Hemingway would give Pound boxing lessons. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes a late afternoon match in Pound’s studio, when they were surprised by a visit from the artist Wyndham Lewis. He swanned in like a character from La Boheme, wearing the pretentious garb of a pre-war artist. Lewis insisted they should continue sparring but Hemingway believed he was looking on in the hope of seeing his friend Ezra get hurt. He kept Ezra moving but never countered, and then said they were done. Watching Lewis carefully over drinks, Hemingway concluded he looked nasty.
Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.
Hemingway forged friendships with other writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man with a ‘delicate long-lipped’ ‘girl’s mouth’ that ‘worried you until you knew him’.
On the whole Hemingway was much admired by the expats. James Joyce said of him:
He’s a good writer, Hemingway. He writes as he is. We like him. He’s a big, powerful peasant, as strong as a buffalo. A sportsman. And ready to live the life he writes about. He would never have written it if his body had not allowed him to live it. But giants of his sort are truly modest; there is much more behind Hemingway’s form than people know.
By the mid 1920s, a younger generation of American expatriate writers had followed the likes of Hemingway, Dos Passos and Fitzgerald to Paris and were in the process of being ‘discovered’. It would be an event if in the evening Hemingway passed them at the Dôme, handsome and tall, in his usual patched jacket and sneakers, walking like a boxer on the balls of his feet. One of these writers, Nathan Asch, recalled:
In view of the whole terraces, Hemingway would be striding toward the Montparnasse railroad station, his mind seemingly busy with the mechanics of someone’s arrival or departure, and he wouldn’t quite recognize whoever greeted him. Then suddenly his beautiful smile appeared that made those watching him also smile; and with a will and an eagerness he put out his hands and warmly greeted his acquaintance, who, overcome by this reception, simply glowed; and who returned with Hem to the table as if with an overwhelming prize.
One of the many pleasures of A Moveable Feast are the glimpses Hemingway’s adopted home, the city he loved beyond all others. After writing, he was free to walk anywhere he liked. He takes us by the hand with great charm and warmth, and shares what he sees, from the ‘fresh-washed gravel paths’ and bare winter trees of the Luxembourg gardens, to the park again on a fresh spring day its with horse-chestnut trees and wood pigeons. And his sensory descriptions, of food are tantalising:
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
Although Paris was their base from the early twenties, Hemingway and Hadley travelled extensively until the outbreak of the Second World War. They skied the Swiss and Austrian Alps, went to bullfights in Spain, and took hunting and fishing trips in the countryside. There was a spell in Canada where Hadley gave birth to their ‘husky and good looking’ son John (‘Bumby’). Hemingway was highly productive throughout, writing each morning in longhand at whatever desk or surface he could find.
Towards the second half of 1925 Hemingway started his first novel. He said he knew nothing about writing a novel when he began but the book reveals his student cast of mind, and his habit of beginning with the simple before moving on to the complex. The work combined all the principles he had learned from his stories and vignettes: simple declarative sentences with a stress on nouns and verbs rather than adjectives, a limited word palette, stream of consciousness passages, use of repetition, and the added element of a larger cast of characters.
The story is about American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona in Spain to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Many have returned from the Great War, disillusioned, either morally bankrupt or physically wounded. Apart from the matador Pedro Romero, they have lost their original values and are striving to live by a simpler code. Their feelings deadened by war, they seem only capable of enjoying the strongest, most straightforward pleasures. In the book’s epigraph he called this cohort of directionless war survivors the ‘Lost Generation’. It was a term Gertrude Stein had cadged from the owner of her garage and adopted with a vengeance: ‘You have no respect for anything,’ she told him. ‘You drink yourselves to death…’
While the book was in progress, Hemingway wrote to his mother in Illinois:
I have been working so hard on my novel that I have not noticed days of week, month or change of season. I am nearly through now and damned tired. That is the only word I know that expresses that degree of tiredness. I have worked from 3 to 5 hours writing on it steadily every day including days on the train in Spain since July 13th. Have written probably about 80,000 words so far.
He added in the margin, ‘It should be a very fine novel. So far it is called Fiesta, but I may change the title.’ Known as Fiesta (1926) to most of the world, in America the novel was called The Sun Also Rises. It became a landmark in modern fiction, the quintessential novel of the Lost Generation and a great commercial success. It was the work of a man who had finished his apprenticeship and, at the age of twenty-six, had become a master.
Hemingway had been raised in Illinois where, at the time, intellect was suspect and Europeans were deemed by many to be ungodly and decadent. He arrived in Paris a complete unknown. But through the life he led there, the people he met, and his hard and courageous work, he found a voice that was new; one that was all his own. By the close of 1925 Hemingway had become self-reliant and self-critical, writing the books he wanted to write, books that hit the mark. The hard, daily demands of writing began to save him from himself. Writing became a refuge from an increasingly complex personal life, but that’s a story for another time.
Erik Satie – ‘Gymnopédie’ No.1, Played by: Daniel Varsano, Philippe Entremont
Music is not mentioned a great deal in Hemingway’s early work. Jazz seemed an obvious choice but it had yet to make its full impact on Paris in the early twenties. Instead I chose this atmospheric piano solo by Satie. He was still working in Paris when Hemingway arrived in 1921. From 1920 he had been on friendly terms with Stein’s circle, so it is possible that they met. Like Hemingway, Satie’s work defied classical tradition and at the time of its composition this piece broke literally every musical rule there was. Satie was striving for simplicity in ‘Gymnopédie’ No 1′ and abandoned harmonic structure for sustained rhythms that lure the listener into other worlds.
A great number of major American writers have credited Hemingway with influencing their style including Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson, Ray Bradbury and Bret Easton Ellis. J.D. Salinger did not like his writing but loved the man, having met him during the Paris liberation just after the war, and named himself ‘national chairman of the Hemingway Fan Clubs’. Hemingway’s style held particular appeal for the great American novelist James Salter, who had this to say about Hemingway’s writing in an essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books:
… he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness. There is a nervy tension in his writing. The words seem to stand almost in defiance of one another. The powerful early stories that were made of simple declaratives seemed somehow to break through into a new language, a genuine American language that had so far been undiscovered, and with it was a distinct view of the world.
Nearly one hundred years after Hemingway took his walk through Paris in the rain, I waited for a rainy day, and followed in his footsteps. I arrived in his former neighbourhood early, and took my time, lingering in places that took my interest along the way.
Place de la Contrescarpe, where ‘the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees’ lies at an axis between the ancient market street rue Mouffetard, and the street where Hemingway and Hadley lived, rue Cardinal Lemoine. The cafés that line its round square are far more salubrious than the Café des Amateurs that Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast as a ‘cesspool’. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the writer Harry, dying in Africa, thinks back on the time he spent living in this area:
…And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine-cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.
Hemingway was twenty-two, Hadley thirty, when they moved into the two-room flat on the fourth floor of 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine in early January, 1922. The fact that the area was solidly working class suited Hemingway, who was eager to identify with real people as against the ‘eggheads’ of the Latin Quarter or expatriate ‘phonies’ in Montparnasse. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas visited them here in March 1922, and Hemingway gave Gertrude all the fiction he had written until that point. She took offence at the dirty words he used in his story ‘Up in Michigan’ but Hemingway left them in anyway.
Around the corner from the flat is 39 rue Descartes, the former hotel where Verlaine (1844-96) died and where Hemingway rented a room on the top floor to write. Its ground floor now houses the restaurant La Maison de Verlaine which gets good reviews. The street is lined with bars catering to students and tourists but in the streets behind are bookshops selling delicious looking special editions within paces of each other.
The streetscape of rue Clovis with ancient stone walls that line the lead up to the church St-Etienne-du-Mont, and Lycee Henri Quatre is not likely to have changed for centuries. I relished seeing a sight that Hemingway would immediately recognise. The church tempted me and I slipped through its grand doors. St-Etienne-du-Mont was built between 1492 and 1626 on the foundations of two earlier churches, the first dating from 511. It contains the shrine of the patron saint of Paris; Genevieve, and the tombs of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine. Many consider it one of the most beautiful churches in Paris, but it felt cavernous to me and a little bleak on this damp, summer’s day. So too did the nearby ‘windswept’ Place du Pantheon, which I’ve always found forbidding.
The Cluny Hemingway mentions is the Musee de Cluny, a museum of the middle ages. Tucked behind this museum I discovered a delightful medieval garden full of wildflowers, just off the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain.
As I walked past the bargain bookshops on Boulevard Saint-Michel, blue patches began to show in the ‘wet blackness of the street’. By the time I reached the river the sun was shining. It was late summer and the leaves on the tree lined boulevard looked slightly on the turn, betraying hints of autumn. I have since come across this beautiful poem by Hungarian poet, Endre Ady that he set here.
Autumn Passed Through Paris
Autumn slipped into Paris yesterday,
came silently down Boulevard St Michel,
In sultry heat, past boughs sullen and still,
and met me on its way.
As I walked on to where the Seine flows by,
little twig songs burned softly in my heart,
smoky, odd, sombre, purple songs. I thought
they sighed that I shall die.
Autumn drew abreast and whispered to me,
Boulevard St Michel that moment shivered.
Rustling, the dusty, playful leaves quivered,
whirled forth along the way.
One moment: summer took no heed: whereon,
laughing, autumn sped away from Paris.
That it was here, I alone bear witness,
under the trees that moan.
Although Hemingway doesn’t mention Shakespeare and Company on this walk (in any case the bookshop was in a different location in his day) I just couldn’t resist a brief visit. He was a great cat lover and one of the managers told me they have always had a ‘Kitty’ named after one of his cats, but the present incumbent had just died. They also have a dog called Colette and a cat that was found curled up in the Agatha Christie section called Aggie.
Hemingway did not specify the café that was his final destination so I headed for one that I know nearby. The Tea Caddy is around the corner from Shakespeare and Company. This British style tea room was founded in 1928 by a Miss Klinkiln – probably not quite Hem’s thing, but most authentic. Inside its homely dark wood panelled walls, I have often seen immaculately dressed elderly Parisian women taking respite from the busyness outside. Directly opposite the tea room is one of the oldest churches in Paris, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre – to my mind one of the most beautiful churches full stop. We’ll visit it some time soon.
Some footage of Paris in the 1920s.
A Guardian opinion piece on the value of Hemingway’s writing by Clancy Sigal.
A Buzz Feed article: ‘6 Letters That Will Change The Way You Think About Ernest Hemingway’, reveal a more nuanced side to the man.
The Sun Also Rises Walk – Directions for a walking tour through Hemingway’s Paris.
Consider taking in the history of literary Paris with one of David Burke’s Writers in Paris Walking Tours. He runs a series of set walks on Sundays but can cater for special requests or different itineraries on other days.
The Hemingway Project is a site featuring the late Allie Baker’s wonderful collection of stories about the enduring influence of Ernest Hemingway.
Shakespeare and Company host some wonderful literary events. Be sure to look up their website to see what’s on if you’re visiting.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway, Thames & Hudson, 1978
Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation, Andre Deutsch, 1973
Dillon-Malone, Aubrey. Hemingway: The grace and the pressure. Robson Books, 1999.
Hemingway, Ernest. The letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume II, 1923-1925, Sandra Spanier, Albert J. Defazio III,
Robert W. Trogdon, Eds. Cambridge University Press, 2013
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast (The restored edition). Penguin, 2009.
Rich, Motoko. “Moveable Feast’ is Recast by Hemingway Grandson’, The New York Times, 27 June, 2009