Book Review: Imagining Paris

I have the sixth largest library in the United States of America. Technically it’s not mine of course, but I do have full access to all the stacks and am allowed to check out an unlimited number of books for months at a time and to renew them endlessly. Maybe we should just refer to my house as the forty-first branch of the forty-branch system spread around campus and leave it at that.


February 10, 2010

I have the sixth largest library in the United States of America. Technically it’s not mine of course, but I do have full access to all the stacks and am allowed to check out an unlimited number of books for months at a time and to renew them endlessly. Maybe we should just refer to my house as the forty-first branch of the forty-branch system spread around campus and leave it at that.

One of the books on my shelf, which I see by the checkout slip I’ve had and been dipping into repeatedly since March 2007, is Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity, by J. Gerald Kennedy (Yale UP, 1993). Kennedy is William A. Read Professor of English at LSU and a scholar of Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, literary nationalism, and modernism.

In Imagining, Kennedy takes up some of my own preoccupations: What is place, how does it manifest similarly yet idiosyncratically in different minds, and what does it mean to represent a place in narrative? Here, of course, he deals with the “axis mundi,” the city at the center of the world, and how it “affected the career of each writer [Gertude Stein, Hemingway (who gets the most space), Henry Miller, Fitzgerald, and Djuna Barnes] and how Paris became for each a complex image of the possibilities of metamorphosis.”

Many of their works

portray the experience of exile as a crisis in which the expatriate, opened to new desires in a seemingly unreal place, discovers internal contradictions and tensions. Paris thus figures as a fantastic scene of conflict and possibility, presenting those dilemmas of choice through which the self constructs and defines itself.

For Stein, “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” While she acknowledged that “anybody is as their land and air is,” meaning that some geographies originally form one’s personality and sensibilities, she saw other places such as Paris as “romantic other[s],” where “[Americans] are free not to be connected with anything happening.” More than that, Kennedy points out, Stein believed in a deep cultural conservatism—la vie française—as necessary for the individual’s “private revolt,” which might bring about aesthetic innovation.

In this “absolute interiority, Stein grounds her project [modernist writing] in a double rejection: a geographical flight from the country where she ‘belongs’ and an imaginative detachment from the ‘romantic’ country in which she lives.” (Stein lived in France for the last 43 years of her life—much of it at the famous atelier and salon at 27, rue de Fleurus, which became her own country—and is buried with Alice B. Toklas in Père Lachaise.)

Ernest Hemingway’s Paris was a different sort of romantic retreat, the “City of Danger,” as Kennedy titles the chapter on him. The safe enclave of Oak Park, Illinois, where Hemingway grew up among “the virtues of industry, piety, sobriety (Oak Park was dry before Prohibition), and rectitude,” never really found its way into Hemingway’s fiction. The Michigan woods where he spent summers as a boy and lived for a year before he was married provided richer experiences, “various initiations into adult pleasures and responsibilities,” which he was able to write about (later) extensively, and which he went looking for elsewhere all his life. This was what he found and thrived on in Paris.

Upon moving there, Hemingway was both drawn to and repulsed by what he saw. The flat he and his wife Hadley rented near the place de la Contrescarpe was above a little dancehall “with a motley clientele” in a quarter that “represented the cultural antithesis of Oak Park: an unpretentious lower-class milieu marked by joie de vivre and an easy acceptance of creaturely appetites, a place where people tolerated personal differences.” Hemingway was drawn to the vividness of that life, but he also “felt occasional disgust” with aspects of it, Kennedy says, “a residual moral disdain” of his mother’s religiosity, which he’d fled. Later he made himself intimately familiar with café life in Montparnasse, even when he wrote about its habitués, “The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde….”

Kennedy implies that the tension from Hemingway’s “combing” Paris for experience created the opportunity for “transition from the amateurish narratives he had been writing in Chicago to the disciplined, compressed prose” that “project[ed] a frenzied, cosmopolitan city of violent contrasts….”

Not the least of these contrasts might be between what Kennedy identifies as “writing and the distractions of the author’s private life.” The great world city with its multitude of diversions has been paradoxically for many “the town best organized for a writer to write that there is,” as Hemingway says, and this is Kennedy’s theme.

Henry Miller got to Paris a little late for the era of “easy expatriation,” and he was already middle-aged and without a published book. But the city provided the necessary break for him from “dominating women [in New York], past failures, and the American cult of wealth and success.” It also provided material and form for Tropic of Cancer, his first book. Though he struggled mightily with “the marginality and precariousness” of being broke in a foreign city that he called “a chimera,” Miller “nevertheless acquired a more intimate and extensive knowledge of the city than any other American writer,” which helped determine his identity.

Kennedy quotes Henry Miller quoting Jakob Wassermann:

Any landscape…which somehow becomes part of our destiny generates a definite rhythm within us, an emotional rhythm and a rhythm of thought of which we usually remain unconscious and which hence is all the more decisive. It should be possible to recognize from the cadences of a writer’s prose the landscape it covers as a fruit covers its kernel…. The landscape in which a person lives does not merely frame the picture; it enters into his very being and becomes a part of him…. Personality is engendered at the point where the inner and outer landscapes are contiguous, where the mythical and the permanent flow into limited time. And every literary work, every deed, every achievement is the result of an amalgamation of the tangible and the intangible, of the inner vision and the actual picture, of the idea and the factual situation, of conception and form.

Miller’s desperate experiment was to read himself by studying Paris “as I would a book.” What he finds in the “gaunt trees with their black boughs,” the “squalid districts [where]…the imbecilic dwarfs of Veláquez, the wretches and cripples of Fantin-Latour, the idiots of Chagall, the monsters created by Goya…pass now in review, brush up against one in filthy tatters,” and the tiny street “packed with the lowest dives where the Algerian and the Arabs get their hump,” is the ecstatic vision of a beauty so great it was “suffocating.” This “secret Paris,” as Kennedy calls it, is the site for Miller’s discovery of self and voice.

Though much of the last chapter of Kennedy’s book is on Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, the chapter also provides basic and illuminating context for “modernism as exile,” a condition we all still live with, complexified.

“[N]o previous modern age had ever brought such precipitous and sweeping change to everyday life and to human understanding,” Kennedy says, explaining the new technologies of communication, warfare, travel, and more. The culture that perceived this “cataclysm” had “a sense of living (and writing) on the threshold of a new era.” In a “great foreign city which remained ultimately elusive or inscrutable,” these American writers “portrayed the dilemma of the expatriate self” and their “accommodation[s] to the possibilities and risks of modernist displacement.”

The book is thoroughly enjoyable and accessible to a general readership. I can finally return it to the library now that I’ve fulfilled my desire to write about it, but I’ll have to buy my own copy for my permanent collection intersecting on Paris, the Lost Generation, modernism, World War I, and rock-star personalities of literature and the arts: Shakespeare & Company, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (and the collected Stein, including Paris, France), Moveable Feast, Being Geniuses Together; Women of the Left Bank, Americans in Paris, Exile’s Return and A Second Flowering, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation and others by Fitch, and many more. (I know I had a copy of Gisele Freund’s James Joyce in Paris but can’t find it. Now that really bothers me. Where the hell did it go? When was Crazy Larry in my house last? I hate it when people put books on their shelves that don't belong to them.)

Kennedy’s idea of Paris as a place that’s stimulating yet “lets you alone,” as Stein said, to do your work is a great metaphor for reading itself. Other people's writing is a foreign city I’ve built in my mind, book by book, and living in it has helped me imagine myself.


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