If you could go back in time, specifically to 1930’s Paris, would you? I guess it’s one of my secret fantasies. I even know exactly what I would be wearing, a blue dress. Gil, the main character in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, finds himself on the cobbled streets of 1930’s Paris at midnight and he meets his writing heroes. It’s a dream come true. That’s how I picture my fantasy with the romance, the beauty, living the historical moments as they are happening. The players including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and the one who tried to maintain civility among them, Gertrude Stein would all be part of the exciting scene. Like Gil, I may even get her to read some of my work. But then I picked up Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and I questioned my fantasy.
Why would I want to wander the dirty streets of Paris begging for my next meal? Bed bugs and lice were just an everyday, every man problem to be dealt with by shaving or bathing if you had access to a bath. I realize, I could have ended up a prostitute. With my surly attitude I may have been thrown out on the streets by a father or a husband whom I had disobeyed. After all, even though the Suffragette movement made some head way, it was a time women earned their keep by obeying and serving. Heck, I could do worse than having Henry Miller as my client. He was kind to them for the most part and appreciated their dedication to their profession. I guess you could say he worshipped whores in a way that was endearing. When you read his descriptions you feel the prostitute is right there beside you. You feel her pain sharply enough to forgive her cunning ways.
Henry Miller was truly in every sense of the word, poor. His wealth came in words that he had no power to barter with. He scavenged for his meals and moved from room to room, hotel to hotel for any bed he could afford at the time. Although Tropic of Cancer has been hailed as an erotic work, its grit and crudeness override any eroticism. Yes, the poetry, rhythm and symbolism are moving. It’s a unique piece of literature but it makes me want to skip my time travel fantasy. The shiny and exciting Paris has been replaced with dirt, bugs, cunts and shysters. Miller explains his attraction to Paris and not in a romantic way. “Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked”
And his description of a typical night on the street.“Where the lights are there are people on the sidewalks, jostling one another, giving off a little animal heat through their dirty underwear and their foul, cursing breaths. Maybe for a stretch of eight or ten blocks there is a semblance of gaiety, and then it tumbles back into night, dismal, foul, black night like frozen fat in a soup tureen.” Does this sound like a street you want to travel?
Such stark contrast is Hemingway’s Paris. Hemingway almost seems innocent in comparison, maybe even naiïve. In A Moveable Feast Hemingway chronicles his writing struggles and triumphs during his first time living in Paris. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter, there was good wood for sale at the wood and coal place across our street, and there were braziers outside of many of the good cafes so that you could keep warm on the terraces. Our town apartment was warm and cheerful…the winter light was beautiful…The trees were sculpture without their leaves…”. And “…I could walk through the gardens and then go to the Muse du Luxembourg where the great paintings were…I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.”
Hemingway’s description of the night time scene couldn’t be more opposed to Miller’s, “But there were always much nicer-looking people that I did not know that, in the evening with the lights just coming on, were hurrying to some place to drink together, to eat together and then to make love. The people in the principal cafes might do the same thing or they might just sit and drink and talk and love to be seen by others.”
So which Paris is the real one? Is it Hemingway’s cafes and parties along with Gertrude Stein’s steady friendship, wine and warm parlor? Or is it Miller’s whores, back stabbers and his best friend’s wives? It’s both. Paris is seedy and beautiful. It’s mean and inviting, like any city. Thanks to Miller we get a rare glimpse of this side of Paris. He has successfully ruined pretty Paris for me. I can reclaim it easily by re-reading A Moveable Feast, or watching Midnight in Paris for the fifth time. Besides, just as Paris herself, we all have a shiny side to us we also have a dark side. I’ll still wear my blue dress but I will opt for Hemingway’s Paris for my time travel fantasy, thank you very much.
Who would you rather time travel with Miller or Hemingway?