Visiting Paris: Memoirs of a City

Memoirs of Montparnasse“O Paris dawns, you are always beautiful, I think, no matter what the weather, but there was never one more beautiful than on that bitter morning in early March in 1928, with a sky of ashes and the tall houses grey and cold, the streets wet and only a few lights showing in the little cafes where the chauffeurs take their breakfasts and brandy.  It was all too soon when I arrived at the Jules-Cesar and staggered up the stairs to our windowless little room, where I vomited in the bidet and fell into bed with a  sensation of pure happiness.” – John Glassco,  Memoirs of Montparnasse


I’ve never been to Paris.  I’d like to go some day.  Alive in my imagination is Paris in the 1920’s, when Americans and other expatriates crowded the bars and cafes, the Lost Generation as Gertrude Stein would dub them. This is Ernest Hemingway’s Paris, as brought to life in The Sun Also Rises, written in 1926, and  A Moveable Feast, published after his death in 1964.

I was inspired to revisit A Moveable Feast after listening to A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway’s biographer and old friend, complain about the revised version edited by Hemingway’s grandson, Sean.  Hotchner argued that the original edition was the book that Ernest intended to be published, and that self serving relatives should not be permitted to alter an author’s work after he died.   On my mother’s bookshelf was the edition I originally read, and I asked her if I could borrow it.  Ah, me, I loved it so much I told her I didn’t want to give it back – she generously agreed.  (The woman weighed less than 100 lbs. – what was she going to do?)

Recently at a family party, friends talked about visiting the literary sites in Paris.  I mentioned A Moveable Feast and they recommended two other memoirs, both Canadian: That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan and Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco.  Memory being what it is, I went home and completely forgot the second book and author, but  immediately went online and requested the Callaghan to be sent to “the bunker”, and picked  it up a few days later.

Callaghan was a journalist and aspiring writer in 1929 when he went to Paris with his wife Loretto.  He was already an admirer of Hemingway and had met him at the Toronto Star.   The book is filled with dialogue and anecdotes about the great writers and artists in Paris at that time, but centers on the two he admired and befriended, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and their strange friendship and rivalry.

Observed briefly are a pair of young men from Montreal Callaghan would later satirize in a short story titled,  Now that April’s Here.  These were John Glassco (“Buffy” to his friends) and Graeme Taylor.   Glassco was to stay three years in Paris, and begin writing what would be Memoirs of Montparnasse (the title of which I obtained with a follow up email).

It’s fun to compare the depictions of people and events by two very different writers and personalities.  You get a composite picture of what happened, sort of like looking at a Picasso canvas as opposed to a photograph –  it looks weird at first but the multiple points of view are just truthful in a different way.   For example, Morley Callaghan was famously known for knocking out Hemingway in a boxing match.  As Callaghan relates, he was mortified to knock his friend down in a match being timed by the inexperienced Fitzgerald, who let one round go four minutes instead of three.  Hemingway accused Fitzgerald of doing so deliberately in the hopes of seeing his rival humiliated. It’s the pivotal incident in the book, affecting and defining the relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  In Glassco’s book, Callaghan comes to a cafe after the match, “thrilled with this triumph, though he played it down modestly”.  There’s no love for the American author either.  “I’m glad he pasted Hemingway”, says Graeme.

Memoirs of Montparnasse is a very different book from either the Hemingway or the Callaghan.  As Buffy and Graeme tour the cafes, parties and brothels of Paris, Glassco observes and records everything. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel, and has the immediacy of direct experience without the filter of memory.  This was Glassco’s intent and why he began writing his memoirs at the time he was living them, finishing the manuscript shortly after he left Paris, as he lay in a hospital bed undergoing painful and dangerous treatment for tuberculosis.

Except that’s not true.  There’s good evidence to suggest the book was written more than thirty years later, and events embellished significantly.  One wonders if Glassco had written it today, if he would have appeared on Oprah defending his book as honest, if not truthful.

And can we really say that A Moveable Feast is a more reliable record, given Hemingway’s well known obsession with his image, and the fact that the book was published after he died?

Does the truth matter in memoir?  Is a memory any less real for being misremembered?   How many points of view would we need to feel we knew what really happened?  And if I do get to Paris, what will I see, when a part of me has already been there?