Terrorism and Paris: Why Hemingway Matters So Much to Parisians and All of Us

Who says that an aging man’s misty memory of the best time in his life isn’t as bona fide as the “facts”?


Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”, is a marvelous fable, spiteful and untruthful and a beautiful read.  He wrote this memoir while he was sick and dying and reinventing his youth in 1920s Paris – the Charleston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and all that – and has in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 attacks on the city shot up to the top of the French bestseller lists.

Titled in French as “Paris est une fete” – Paris is a Celebration (a better title than Hemingway’s) – it’s sold out in book shops in their thousands which customarily offload only a few of the Hemingway a week.  The slim volume has become a fixture among the flowers in memorials across the city.  Parisians who have never heard of the book are snapping it up as a gesture of fuck-you defiance and joy-in-life.

Why a 51-year-old book about Paris of a century ago strikes such a heart chord among Parisians suffering their worst loss of life since World War II answers its own question the moment you open its pages. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast…We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties…it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.”

Salah Abdeslam, Abdelhamid Abaaoud and their pals murdered 130 people and injured many more precisely because Paris was, and is, for so many of us, as it was for the apprentice writer Hemingway, a “feast” of café life and literature and the pleasures of drink and sex – pure western decadence.  That’s why the jihadists call anyone who enjoys food, drink and gossip “whores and prostitutes”.  That’s us. Hemingway would have worn their insult as a badge of honor.

It’s lovely that Parisians’ main form of resistance, once they recovered from panic, is to double down on socializing with, and enjoyment of, each other in cafes and strolling arm in arm along the Seine – in joyless jihadi eyes a worse sin than defaming the Prophet.

There are several layers of positive nostalgia here: For a Paris before the massacres at the football stadium, the Bataclan concert hall and La Belle Equipe café (the latter owned by a Jew married to a Moroccan Muslim).  And a longing in your own personal life when in your 20s everything is possible.  And probably a yearning for Hemingway’s 100-year old Left Bank that was affordable and not quite overrun by us in Bermuda shorts.

Strange about Paris.  Somehow, more than any other city possibly even more than my own London, it seems to belong to us all even those who have never been.  It’s as if the atrocity happened around our local corner.  Gallic propaganda?  Maybe.

There is something so snobbish and indestructibly valuable about French cultural pride.  A 77-year-old Parisienne, Danielle Merrian, seems to have captured the esprit du temps, when laying flowers outside the Bataclan hall where almost a hundred of her countrymen were killed, she told French TV: "It's very important to bring flowers for the dead.  And it's very important to see, among the flowers, copies of Hemingway's book 'A Moveable Feast’ because we are a very ancient civilization, and we will hold high the banner of our values."

For us whores and prostitutes Hemingway will always be the Chicago-born troubador sentimentalizing café life and how poor he was and how wonderful life is in Paris if you don’t give a damn about anything except being in love – even with yourself and what you hope one day to be – in love also with the pissoirs and low flying Fragonard clouds and mean landladies and a city so walkable you can do it in less than a day.

Today we’re not even sure how much of A Moveable Feast the author wanted to see in print.  It was published after he died, when his last wife Mary got her hands on it and later editions cleaned up by Hemingway’s son Sean who may have disliked his father’s reference to his mother, Hemingway’s second wife. Does it matter?  It’s such a terrific book, such a tribute especially now to Paris under siege, detail so marvelously rendered, slipping magically from Hemingway scribbling at the Deux Magots to his imagined past in the Michigan woods – who cares if it’s “true” so long as the love is there.

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