A member of the Lost Generation, a conglomeration of thinkers, artists, and authors, Hemingway spent a great deal of time in the bohemian neighborhood of Montparnasse. It was here that he talked with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was here that he penned The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s novels were fundamentally shaped by the culture and environment of interwar Montparnasse just as the culture and environment of Montparnasse was influenced by people like Hemingway. Not only do specific locations in the district appear in his books, but much of his work embodies the broader themes of life and death in this part of Paris at the time.
Hemingway frequented several places in Montparnasse in particular during his time in Paris. One of these was La Closerie des Lilas, a popular cafe for many artists and intellectuals. Founded in 1847, the café was one of the first to become prominent as a gathering place for the cosmopolitan crowd during the interwar period. Located next door to the Bal Bullier, the most famous ballroom in Paris, La Closerie des Lilas had countless illustrious patrons, including Emile Zola, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. They came here to discuss ideas, critique each other’s work, and contemplate the world around them. Cafes like La Closerie des Lilas served as the center for intellectual and artistic life after World War I. They were the backdrop against which the great artistic minds of the Lost Generation spawned connections and associations as they strove to unravel the sense of estrangement and alienation they felt in this strange new world through the lens of literature and art. Here in La Closerie des Lilas Hemingway developed his unique, sparse writing style and wrote his first serious novel, The Sun Also Rises, which follows a group of young Americans in Paris as they chase wealth and adventure only discover the shallowness and vanity of the American Dream.
Another favorite haunt of Hemingway’s was the Dingo Bar, located on the rue Delambre in Montparnasse. First opened in 1923, this was one of the only drinking establishments in the district that was open throughout the night, and thus became a favored spot for expatriate authors and artists. According to A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris, it was here that he first encountered F. Scott Fitzgerald, two weeks after he had published The Great Gatsby. Two literary titans of the time, the two men were initially developed a fast friendship, but their relationship quickly deteriorated into a tense rivalry, captured in a series of biting letters exchanged throughout the 1920s. When Hemingway sent Fitzgerald a preliminary draft of A Farewell to Arms, the latter returned it with ten pages of recommended annotations, to which Hemingway replied succinctly, “Kiss my ass.” Although their dynamic was often fraught with tension and venom, the influence these two writers had on each other is undeniable as they each explored the feelings of detachment and alienation that had led them from America to France through their respective writing, all amidst the backdrop of Montparnasse.
Many of Hemingway’s books feature well-known locations in the district. One of his most well-known novels, The Sun Also Rises, so embodied the atmosphere of this particular bohemian part of Paris that Fitzgerald warned him that it read like a guidebook to Montparnasse. Café le Select, a regular destination for the expatriate crowd, is one of the primary settings in the novel and the place where the reader first encounters the protagonist’s love interest. In another scene, two of the main characters, Jake and Bill, circle the rue St-Jacques and walk up the rue du Montparnasse during a critical conversation. Several omitted chapters find characters in key neighborhood landmarks such as Le Dome and La Closerie des Lilas.
Montparnasse does not simply provide a setting for Hemingway’s novels but an atmosphere and tone as well. His work incorporates the flavor and ambience of existence in this district, both its beauty and its dark side, both life and death. Although a place pulsing with color and vivacity, Montparnasse was also where American expatriates explored the sense of isolation and disillusionment that drove them from their native country. Despite being filled with people striving to enjoy life and all its pleasures, the recent memory of World War I still hung in the air. Many, including Hemingway were plagued by inner demons and anxieties in a strange, new world that was currently undergoing tumultuous change. Although this modern era offered new luxuries, commodities and entertainments, a palpable sense of loss permeated Paris after the war. Even in the lively, exciting Montparnasse, this curious juxtaposition of life and death was apparent. Hemingway clearly felt this as he wrote this short poem entitled “Montparnasse.”
There are never any suicides in the quarter among people one knows
No successful suicides.
A Chinese boy kills himself and is dead.
(they continue to place his mail in the letter rack at the Dome)
A Norwegian boy kills himself and is dead.
(no one knows where the other Norwegian boy has gone)
They find a model dead
alone in bed and very dead.
(it made almost unbearable trouble for the concierge)
Sweet oil, the white of eggs, mustard and water, soap suds
and stomach pumps rescue the people one knows.
Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café.
In the fast-paced les Années Folles, personal human tragedy barely registered amid the hordes of friends, acquaintances, and colleages. Regardless of the all-encompassing presence of death, life bustled on unhampered in the cafes and ballrooms of Montparnasse. Such an odd contrast made this Parisian neighborhood utterly distinct, a unique disparity that permeated much of the literature and art produced during the interwar period.