In early 19th century Greece and Athens were occupied by the thankfully-extinct Ottoman Empire. In March 1821 the Greeks revolted against their Turkish oppressors and Athens fell into their hands without a fight. The entire Turkish garrison of the city retreated up the Acropolis hill and barricaded themselves within the most important temple of Western civilization: the Parthenon.
Whilst they were being besieged by the Athenian forces, the Ottomans soon found themselves out of ammunition. Maliciously resourceful, the desperate Ottomans began stripping sheets of lead inbuilt in the Parthenon to melt and use as makeshift ammunition. Realizing that this would do untold harm to the great temple of Athens, the Athenian soldiers provided the Ottoman soldiers with bullets, risking their own lives helping their hell-bent adversary, all so they could protect the beauteous temple.
This story sounds like a fanciful myth of the type told on the friezes of the Parthenon itself. But it is factual. What’s more, its underlying grace, displaying man’s love of Beauty even in the face of death, was not a one-off. It is, in a refractive way, happening once again, in our times, in the City of Lights.
Those heroic victims (heroic for they died martyrs to liberty) have barely been in Persephone’s embrace a week and already, out of their ashes, the phoenix of Beauty is arising. Unexpectedly, sales of Ernest Hemingway’s Paris memoirs, A Moveable Feast, are going through the elevated roof in Paris. Bookshops all over the city are selling out on the 51-year-old memoir and in this there is true hope.
You might have heard – who isn’t talking about Paris and IS? – some scaremongerers proclaiming the decline and corruption of Western civilization (don’t you find them to be as self-loathing as IS themselves?). And some pseudo-Orientalists proliferating in the ranks will have you believe that Islamic terrorism is a Western construct (why then, aren’t Nicaraguans and Vietnamese and Koreans committing a worldwide terrorist war? Have the West not failed them more than we failed the Middle-East? Ah, but there is no Saudi Arabia in those countries). And hearing them talk might make you doubt our innocence and theirs. And by all means doubt, ask questions be skeptical – Western foreign interventions have been far from perfect, at times purely colonialistic, others botched political maneuvering.
Question our political motives if you will: but never for a moment doubt our cultural merit!
Parisians are showing the West how to win the war against terror: Islamists respond to attacks by blowing themselves up, Parisians are responding to attacks by turning to literature!
“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” Because we have the pen, the written word, Paris belongs to us all. All of this is a bit Russian doll-esque: a work of fiction embodying a factual place and the factual place in turn embodies the fiction and so on ad infinitum. “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
I have always been a great admirer of Papa; he is the wayward bon vivant that maximises life in ways more creative than any of his muscular sentences. He is known for his war novels and heroic male characters and it is perhaps no coincidence that a deified hedonist such as Hemingway would be drawn to the machismo of war and soldiery. Hedonism, liberalism, free travel: these are all hard-won rights that need to be defended at all times. In Hemingway’s day they needed to be defended against fascism and communism. In our day they need to be defended against Islamic fundamentalism. And, let it be noted: Paris has always been on the right side of this war for freedom. Robespierre, the infamous architect of the revolutionary Terror was himself a brutal, neo-Roman tyrant and a contradictory leader: how can you defend freedom by impinging on it? Terror is the currency of terrorists, not of those who are free.
“To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.” This is Epicurean hedonism at its pinnacle.
A Moveable Feast is an ode to Paris – albeit at times a self-glorifying one. It was written later in the author’s life as he reminisced on the glory days of 1920’s Paris when it was made into a modern Pantheon inhabited by the likes of James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and the great painters like Dali, Picasso and Miro. His recollections have been biased by time: such as the time he spent with his first wife Hadley and his subsequent mistress (and future wife no. 2) Pauline. There are moments of sheer charm such as when Hemingway introduces his son to café and literary society showing a more relatable side to Papa; but interspersed widely and wildly in the memoir are sidelong swipes at the aforementioned Pantheon. In one of the more brioso chapters called A Matter of Measurements Hemingway had this to say of Fitzgerald and his, diamond not as big as the Ritz, ahem:
“Zelda (Fitzgerald) said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
After this, Hemingway tells us, Fitzgerald and he adjourn to the lavatory and compare measurements, in one of literary history’s most phallic moments. A moment which, to be sure, failed to reassure Fitzgerald.
His treatment of Ford Madox Ford is also dubious, as to when Hem refers to his malodorous presence, or his heavy breathing and his utter rudeness to waiters (a heavy breathing, incidentally, caused by suffering a poison gas-attack in the First World War, a War he wrote so powerfully about in his masterpiece The Good Soldier). There is clear bitterness in some of the passages, even excluding the nastiness towards Ford and Fitzgerald:
“I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man… Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.”
But then, lest we forget, this was a memoir written when Hem was a man in decline. His Grecian frame had suffered a Roman battering: a car crash during the war, two plane crashes in Africa, and the ills brought on by a lifetime of drinking. He wrote his memoirs in a defeatist, tired phase of his life. Not that you would think it to read it!
The French title for the book is Paris est une fête: Paris is a party. And the roman does indeed read like a party, bustling with nocturnal cafes and intellectual heavyweights, Hemingway elicits great joy from his tired memory and inspires any and all of his readers with a joie de vivre sweetened by a pinch of gusto. And perhaps, this is what the people of Paris are turning to.
Much like Hemingway in his later years, Paris now feels jaded and defeated. But through Hemingway’s memories Paris is tuning in to its own memory of grandeur, reminding itself of its credentials, values, freedoms and liberties. Who would have thought, after so much talk of bombing IS and invading Syria, that the man who could defeat fundamentalism, at least in Paris, is Ernest Hemingway!