Today’s post comes from our resident book reviewer Trip Starkey, who sends his greetings from the fair skies of Paris, our first Iconic Literary City.
“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” – Ernest Hemingway (A Moveable Feast)
When trying to envision an ideal literary city, there are plenty of options that one could consider to construct the perfect prototype. There must be interesting people, sure. Beautiful scenery and good food are a must. It must have a rich history and great architecture, too. It must be the type of city that is both influenced by writing and influences writers. There must be well-known bookshops, and eager readers that fill them. The ideal literary city must be timeless. It is a place that allows people to be educated by the past, embrace the present, and launches them into the crazed imagination of the future.
The aforementioned literary city prototype, to me, happens to already exist in a country just north of the Mediterranean Sea. The little town, some of you may know it, goes by the name of Paris. Hemingway describes it as a Moveable Feast, which turns out to be the ideal description of it. The town is in a beautiful, continuous movement with humanity and existence, and is in turn a stable force that is retaining the ideas and sentiments of many generations. It is a complex city with a rich tradition, but at the same time it is beautifully simple.
“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” – Thomas Jefferson
As I drove through the narrow streets, lined with designer boutiques and tiny cafés, the city began to unfold before my eyes. The tour guide kept saying things like, “There is Les Deux Magots where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would sit and listen to Louis Armstrong play his trumpet, and discuss their existentialist philosophies.” Or, “This is the building that Voltaire lived and died in.” And even still, “There is café that Ernest Hemingway lived behind when he was young.” For someone who knows and appreciates anything about literature, the city of Paris is Heaven. It’s not simply the fact that literary icons and geniuses have called it home. It is that the nature of Paris is so inbred with beauty and history that one can’t help but feel that their life is being made richer simply by being present in the city limits.
So many types of people – the bourgeois and the proletariat, the poet and the businessman – have called Paris home, and each have left their indelible mark on the city. Its characters have been the monomaniacal leader who brings destruction in pursuit of glory, the lowly street dweller that finds meaning through suffering, the starved artist who finds truth in unexpected places, etc., etc. All of these have provided both a vast tradition, and an endless well of inspiration.
Paris is an open book, quite literally. The city itself is a novel unfolding. It begins from the cobble foundation of the roads, fortifies itself in the archaic architecture of its buildings, and then casts the imagination forth on the rigid rooftops beneath the pale gray sky. Walking around amongst its pages teaches you things that you honestly never thought you would come across.
The purpose of Paris mirrors the purpose of literature. It is to grow the spirit, coalesce with mankind, and ultimately leave the world a better place than it was before. Paris does this quite beautifully. It provides truth to those who search. It provides beauty to those in need. And, most importantly, it provides nourishment to the spiritually weak. Paris takes the incomplete and makes them whole. That is the beauty of Paris.
So, in the famed words of Thomas Gold Appleton, “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” I can only hope my Heaven is the literary safe-haven of Paris.