It is a cold, gray San Francisco day, and I have been lying in bed with a gray San Francisco cold, reading Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast." Hemingway's memoir of Paris in the '20s, "A Moveable Feast" is for me the literary equivalent of comfort food. It's just the thing to curl up with under a heavy comforter, sipping hot tea as the persimmon branches scrape against the living room windowpane and the gray bulbous clouds hang ponderous in the sky.
I don't remember when I first read "A Moveable Feast." Trickster memory wants to think that I read it as an undergraduate and that it was one of the reasons I decided to live in Paris after college. But the tattered, yellowing copy I hold in my hands now, the Penguin paperback with the portraits of Fitzgerald, Joyce and others on the cover, has "9F" -- nine francs -- written in pencil on the first page. And seeing that, I remember distinctly the day I bought the book in George Whitman's Shakespeare & Co. -- the bookstore that took over the name and tradition of Sylvia Beach's original store and lending library, which Hemingway wrote about so lovingly.
I had been in Paris for less than a week, had gotten settled with my host family and started my summer job, and I had reserved the pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. for my first weekend. Entering the store was like visiting a sacred place -- I remember the rows upon rows upon rows of musty books, spilling out of the bookshelves into cardboard boxes, or piled in high toppling columns here and there; the scrawled advertisements for writing classes and literary readings taped to the walls and wooden posts; the frazzled desk of the proprietor himself, a flurry of messages and bills and books, set in the middle of the store like a rock amid swirling torrents of readers and words; the scruffy poets and professors who fingered arcane titles from the shelves or sat blissfully cross-legged in corners, reading; the staircase that led mysteriously to a second floor where, I had been told, rooms were let to deserving impoverished writers.
As I would later feel in a different way in the nearby cathedral of Notre Dame, I felt inexplicably connected to something deep and strong and lasting there, some heritage and hope that flowed before and beyond me -- but within which I was one small and irreplaceable part.
This is the feeling I get still when I read "A Moveable Feast." By now I have read it so many times, in so many different places -- Athens, Tokyo, Berkeley, Kuala Lumpur, Connecticut -- that it has become a part of me, and I don't associate the reading with any particular place. But the book, of course, I associate with Paris; it brings back to life a time and a place -- Paris in the '20s for Hemingway, Paris in the '70s for me -- when every day and every encounter seemed a precious lesson.
Hemingway's descriptions of cafe life and his habit of writing in cafes bring back my own assiduous imitations. I remember carefully staking out a cafe with good light and an unobstructed sidewalk view, lining up my pens and carefully smoothing out the pages of my journal, then ceremoniously ordering a cafi crhme. I would place the journal in front of me and the coffee to its right, and I would look out on the street and begin to scribble about the passing parade, or the elegant old buildings, or the way the light gleamed off the leaf-slicked cobbled streets just after the rain. Eventually I would order a croque monsieur and another cafi crhme, and hours would pass, the light would change from glare to dusk and laughing couples would come and go, the men in sleek suits and the women with teasing eyes.
Later I would underline the addresses Hemingway mentioned and seek them out, book in hand, on weekend days and weekday nights: the apartment at 74 rue de Cardinal Lemoine; Gertrude Stein's place at 27 rue de Fleurus; the original Shakespeare & Co. at 12 rue de l'Odeon; the flat over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. I would stand before them in awe, as I do now, 20 years later, tracing the underlines with my finger and wandering wide-eyed through the streets, piling up saucers at the Closerie des Lilas or ordering oysters and Sancerre to celebrate a particularly good day of writing, walking under the plane trees by the Seine, stopping to look at the prints, postcards and paperbacks at the bookstalls.
Past and past and present merge, and I realize that what this book really represents for me now is an atmosphere, an attitude, a youthful feeling about Paris and about the possibilities of life. For here is Hemingway, in the autumn of his own career, writing about the spring. He is ironic, to be sure; he knows more in the writing than he ever knew in the living. But what still hits me most deeply is the innocence, the wistfulness and the hopefulness, the sense of life's boundless potential -- feelings that I sensed then and that I sense again now, rereading Hemingway.
Doubtless you have your own Paris. It's not geographical; it's the place where life first came vividly to bloom for you, where you walked out the door and fell in love, where you couldn't believe the exquisite beauty of the buildings, or the clouds, or the sun that shone after the rain.
The miracle is that it still lives within you, as Paris lives within me on this dull San Francisco day. What we have loved and embraced are never far -- they are only a cup of tea, a warm comforter and a good book away.