Geniuses Together: Paris in the 1920s

Geniuses Together: Paris in the 1920s

Paris, France. May, 2007. Photo by Douglas Pinson
Paris, France. May, 2007. Photo by Douglas Pinson

 Have been reading a wonderful book, Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s, by Humphrey Carpenter (1988). It makes me smile again and again. Amusing, revealing anecdotes about Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Robert McAlmon so far. Many of the stories well-known. Others not so much.

The Left Bank. Montparnasse. Expat heaven. Dirt poor writers and wealthy socialites turned patronesses. Heavy drinking inside and outside bars, heavy talk in salons, insurgent antics by the Dadaists in theaters, fights, accidents, love affairs, and, finally, the publication of great literature. Often at great risk.

Sylvia Beach published Ulysses, risking fines and worse. The book was declared obscene in America prior to that. She loses typists when they read certain sections. One husband of one of those typists actually throws the manuscript in the fire. Luckily, Joyce found another copy. Hemingway wasn’t so lucky when his wife Hadley lost his early writings. Stolen from her when she turned her back on the suitcase containing them at the Gare de Lyon.

Natalie Barney had her salon on Fridays. In warm weather, she encouraged her guests to go out into the garden. On one occasion, a former lover, Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece), scolded her about the statuary, saying “Oh, Natalie, you forgot to put the hermaphrodite in the bushes.”


An excerpt of Paris Was A Woman, a documentary about the tremendous impact of women on the arts in Paris and beyond. Their lives together, their loves.

 

Robert McAlmon wasn’t famous for being much of a reader. He once told Morley Callaghan, “I haven’t read Joyce or Hemingway. I don’t have to, I know them.” Which, when you think about it, is wise in a strange sort of way. He did, however, read reviews, and attempted his own writing, with mixed results.

There’s a strong section regarding Hemingway, his writing style, his debt to Gertrude Stein (and her eventual debt to him) and his days as a journalist. “No fat, no adjectives, no adverbs” is the title of one of Carpenter’s chapters, taken as a direct quote from Hemingway in reference to writing for newspapers. Carpenter also reminds us how much of a serial teller of tall tales he was. He often bragged about war exploits that never happened, about a career in boxing that never happened, practicing the art of the story in real time. I think those stories also drove him in his quest for risky adventure later in life, as if he were chasing after the truth in those tales, wanting to make them eventually sync up with real life, wanting to make fiction into fact. A future life formed out of the serial exaggerations of the past.

I’ve now moved into the part of the book where not just American and Irish writers take center stage. The French loom large in their own capital, as well they should.

More on the book in the days to come . . .

 

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