Paris is the city of love, light, and literature. I went there prepared to hate it.
Historical Paris has an eternal place in my heart. I’ll talk your ear off about the absinthe glories of La Belle Epoc, Hemingway scribbling in the Closerie des Lilas, and Mesrine escaping La Sante prison in broad daylight.
But my image of modern Paris was an urban hell full of rude waiters and yapping poodles. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.
In 1921 a young journalist from Illinois arrived in Paris with a loving wife and a suitcase of tyro manuscripts. Seven years soaking up the avant-garde teachings of Ezra Pound and James Joyce turned him into the best prose stylist of his generation. Ernest Hemingway returned to America with a fresh literary approach, a book contract, and a younger, richer wife.
Most readers still associate Ernest Hemingway with the French capital, an image cemented by his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast. Guides do walking excursions round his old haunts for the tourists.
Richard Owen has other ideas. In a new book he makes the case that Italy, not France, was the place closest to Hemingway’s heart.
What’s the link between Raymond Chandler, poet laureate of noir detective fiction, and Charles Bukowski, patron saint of low-life drunks? Two that I can think of: a dead gay psychic and a book.
The book was Bukowski’s Pulp. Published in 1994, it was the last he ever wrote. The bard of the bottle was on his way out when he wrote this homage/parody to the LA detective thriller.
The works of Chandler and fellow noir master Dashiell Hammett loom large over Bukowski’s book, even as he subverts their tropes and goes looking for more philosophical mean streets to stroll down. The text eventually escapes its Chandler pastiche and meanders off into autobiography and a creeping sense of mortality.
The dead gay psychic is something else.
I’ve been writing books, articles, and blog posts for a while now. My subjects are mercenaries and extremists, smugglers and peacekeepers, lost causes and short-lived countries, and the kind of writers who hammer out words on a busted typewriter with a 9mm in their belt and a bottle of vodka in the ice box.
Recently I wrote Lost Lions of Judah, the strange, untold story of the Nazis and adventurers who fought for Ethiopia against Mussolini’s invaders. And it’s all true.
That’s one of the revelations in non-fiction narratives. Almost everything that appears in a novels has already happened to someone real somewhere else. And it was weirder and wilder than you can imagine.
There are plenty of non-fiction writers out there with the talent to take all their research and interviews and summon up a living, breathing, technicolor world. Here’s six non-fiction books that do the job very well.
Hard, cold, and carved. The minimalist prose style made famous by Ernest Hemingway shook up avant-garde Paris in the 1920s. It went on to make him a best-selling and influential author. Within a few years any American tough guy pulp writer with a glass of bourbon beside his typewriter wanted to sound like Hemingway.
“They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of the hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard.” [in our time, Ernest Hemingway, 1924]
Ernest Hemingway hated the cover to A Farewell to Arms when it was published in 1929. A man, an angel, and a flowering tree in a circular design of gold and red against a blue background.
The cover was done by Cleon, the pen name of Cleonike Damianakes Wilkins. She did three Hemingway covers, a book each for F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and a couple for Conrad Aiken.
“The Cleon drawing,” Hemingway said, “has a lousy and completely unattractive decadence i.e. large misplaced breasts.”