Moveable Feast (Chapter 3)
Une Génération Perdue
It was easy to get into the habit of stopping in at 27 rue de Fleurus late in the afternoon for the warmth and the great pictures and the conversation. Often Miss Stein would have no guests and she was always very friendly and for a long time she was affectionate. When I had come back from trips that I had made to the different political conferences or to the Near East or Germany for the Canadian paper and the news services that I worked for she wanted me to tell her about all the amusing details. There were funny parts always and she liked them and also what the Germans call gallows-humor stories. She wanted to know the gay part of how the world was going; never the real, never the bad.
I was young and not gloomy and there were always strange and comic things that happened in the worst time and Miss Stein liked to hear these. The other things I did not talk of and wrote by myself.
When I had not come back from any trips and would stop in at the rue de Fleurus after working I would try sometimes to get Miss Stein to talk about books. When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then, such as Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence or any who had books published that I could get from Sylvia Beach’s library or find along the quais.
“Huxley is a dead man,” Miss Stein said. “Why do you want to read a dead man? Can’t you see he is dead?”
I could not see, then, that he was a dead man and I said that his books amused me and kept me from thinking.
“You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.”
“I’ve been reading truly good books all winter and all last winter and I’ll read them next winter, and I don’t like frankly bad books.”
“Why do you read this trash? It is inflated trash, Hemingway. By a dead man.”
“I like to see what they are writing,” I said. “And it keeps my mind off me doing it.”
“Who else do you read now?”
“D. H. Lawrence,” I said. “He wrote some very good short stories, one called ‘The Prussian Officer.’ ”
“I tried to read his novels. He’s impossible. He’s pathetic and preposterous. He writes like a sick man.”
“I liked Sons and Lovers and The White Peacock,” I said. “Maybe that not so well. I couldn’t read Women in Love.”
“If you don’t want to read what is bad, and want to read something that will hold your interest and is marvelous in its own way, you should read Marie Belloc Lowndes.”
I had never heard of her, and Miss Stein loaned me The Lodger, that marvelous story of Jack the Ripper and another book about murder at a place outside Paris that could only be Enghien les Bains. They were both splendid after-work books, the people credible and the action and the terror never false. They were perfect for reading after you had worked and I read all the Mrs. Belloc Lowndes that there was. But there was only so much and none as good as the first two and I never found anything as good for that empty time of day or night until the first fine Simenon books came out.
I think Miss Stein would have liked the good Simenons—the first one I read was either L’Ecluse Numéro 1, or La Maison du Canal—but I am not sure because when I knew Miss Stein she did not like to read French although she loved to speak it. Janet Flanner gave me the first two Simenons I ever read. She loved to read French and she had read Simenon when he was a crime reporter.
In the three or four years that we were good friends I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald. When I first met her she did not speak of Sherwood Anderson as a writer but spoke glowingly of him as a man and of his great, beautiful, warm Italian eyes and of his kindness and his charm. I did not care about his great beautiful warm Italian eyes but I liked some of his short stories very much. They were simply written and sometimes beautifully written and he knew the people he was writing about and cared deeply for them. Miss Stein did not want to talk about his stories but always about him as a person.
“What about his novels?” I asked her. She did not want to talk about Anderson’s works any more than she would talk about Joyce. If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back. It was like mentioning one general favorably to another general. You learned not to do it the first time you made the mistake. You could always mention a general, though, that the general you were talking to had beaten. The general you were talking to would praise the beaten general greatly and go happily into detail on how he had beaten him.
Anderson’s stories were too good to make happy conversation. I was prepared to tell Miss Stein how strangely poor his novels were, but this would have been bad too because it was criticizing one of her most loyal supporters. When he wrote a novel finally called Dark Laughter, so terribly bad, silly and affected that I could not keep from criticizing it in a parody,Miss Stein was very angry. I had attacked someone that was a part of her apparatus. But for a long time before that she was not angry. She, herself, began to praise Sherwood lavishly after he had cracked up as a writer.
She was angry at Ezra Pound because he had sat down too quickly on a small, fragile and, doubtless, uncomfortable chair, that it is quite possible he had been given on purpose, and had either cracked or broken it. That he was a great poet and a gentle and generous man and could have accommodated himself in a normal-size chair was not considered. The reasons for her dislike of Ezra, skillfully and maliciously put, were invented years later.
It was when we had come back from Canada and were living in the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and Miss Stein and I were still good friends that Miss Stein made the remark about the lost generation. She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein’s Ford. Anyway he had not been sérieux and had been corrected severely by the patron of the garage after Miss Stein’s protest. The patron had said to him, “You are all a génération perdue.”
“That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really?” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….”
“Was the young mechanic drunk?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“Have you ever seen me drunk?”
“No. But your friends are drunk.”
“I’ve been drunk,” I said. “But I don’t come here drunk.”
“Of course not. I didn’t say that.”
“The boy’s patron was probably drunk by eleven o’clock in the morning,” I said. “That’s why he makes such lovely phrases.”
“Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,” Miss Stein said. “It does no good at all. You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”
Later when I wrote my first novel I tried to balance Miss Stein’s quotation from the garage keeper with one from Ecclesiastes. But that night walking home I thought about the boy in the garage and if he had ever been hauled in one of those vehicles when they were converted to ambulances. I remembered how they used to burn out their brakes going down the mountain roads with a full load of wounded and braking in low and finally using the reverse, and how the last ones were driven over the mountainside empty, so they could be replaced by big Fiats with a good H-shift and metal-to-metal brakes. I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation? Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees on the bronze, and he alone there and nobody behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be and I stopped at the Lilas to keep the statue company and drank a cold beer before going home to the flat over the sawmill. But sitting there with the beer, watching the statue and remembering how many days Ney had fought, personally, with the rear-guard on the retreat from Moscow that Napoleon had ridden away from in the coach with Caulaincourt, I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been and how beautifully she had spoken of Apollinaire and of his death on the day of the Armistice in 1918 with the crowd shouting “à bas Guillaume” and Apollinaire, in his delirium, thinking they were crying against him, and I thought, I will do my best to serve her and see she gets justice for the good work she had done as long as I can, so help me God and Mike Ney. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels. When I got home and into the courtyard and upstairs and saw my wife and my son and his cat, F. Puss, all of them happy and a fire in the fireplace, I said to my wife, “You know, Gertrude is nice, anyway.”
“Of course, Tatie.”
“But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.”
“I never hear her,” my wife said. “I’m a wife. It’s her friend that talks to me.”
Shakespeare and Company
In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon. On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive. Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished.
There was no reason for her to trust me. She did not know me and the address I had given her, 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, could not have been a poorer one. But she was delightful and charming and welcoming and behind her, as high as the wall and stretching out into the back room which gave onto the inner court of the building, were shelves and shelves of the wealth of the library.
I started with Turgenev and took the two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D. H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky.
“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll be back to pay,” I said. “I have some money in the flat.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.”
“When does Joyce come in?” I asked.
“If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen him?”
“We’ve seen him at Michaud’s eating with his family,” I said. “But it’s not polite to look at people when they are eating, and Michaud’s is expensive.”
“Do you eat at home?”
“Mostly now,” I said. “We have a good cook.”
“There aren’t any restaurants in your immediate quarter, are there?”
“No. How did you know?”
“Larbaud lived there,” she said. “He liked it very much except for that.”
“The nearest good cheap place to eat is over by the Panthéon.”
“I don’t know that quarter. We eat at home. You and your wife must come sometime.”
“Wait until you see if I pay you,” I said. “But thank you very much.”
“Don’t read too fast,” she said.
Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse. With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor, and pictures we liked on the walls, it was a cheerful, gay flat. When I got there with the books I told my wife about the wonderful place I had found.
“But Tatie, you must go by this afternoon and pay,” she said.
“Sure I will,” I said. “We’ll both go. And then we’ll walk down by the river and along the quais.”
“Let’s walk down the rue de Seine and look in all the galleries and in the windows of the shops.”
“Sure. We can walk anywhere and we can stop at some new café where we don’t know anyone and nobody knows us and have a drink.”
“We can have two drinks.”
“Then we can eat somewhere.”
“No. Don’t forget we have to pay the library.”
“We’ll come home and eat here and we’ll have a lovely meal and drink Beaune from the co-operative you can see right out of the window there with the price of the Beaune on the window. And afterwards we’ll read and then go to bed and make love.”
“And we’ll never love anyone else but each other.”
“What a lovely afternoon and evening. Now we’d better have lunch.”
“I’m very hungry,” I said. “I worked at the café on a café crème.”
“How did it go, Tatie?”
“I think all right. I hope so. What do we have for lunch?”
“Little radishes, and good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart.”
“And we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.”
“Would that be honest?”
“Does she have Henry James too?”
“My,” she said. “We’re lucky that you found the place.”
“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.