On Paris (On)
by Ernest Hemingway
Reviewed by Jesse Freedman
On Paris, a lean collection of Ernest Hemingway's dispatches while working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, provides an unfettered glimpse into one of the author's most significant periods of stylistic evolution. Originally published between 1922 and 1923, the articles are divided in their coverage between three primary topics: French politics, Parisian cafes, and American tourism. A fourth topic -- one which permeates the collection, but which is not discussed directly -- is Hemingway's development as a writer. Taken together, these broad categories of reflection reveal a budding, sometimes temperamental, writer assembling a detailed vision of France's social and political landscapes in the wake of World War I. This vision manifests an admiration for the French and their spirit, but furnishes an equally enticing image of the young newsman on the precipice of change.
Sprinkled throughout On Paris are the seeds of Hemingway's transformation toward fiction; indeed, the stylistic tropes for which he was later recognized appear in a number of columns, including "Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris," which closely resembles the sketches contained in A Moveable Feast. Hemingway, who first arrived in France in 1921, clearly experimented in his early reportage with the effects of repetition and the ordering of language: Paris, for instance, is repeatedly described in his dispatches as "cheap," while France is distinguished by its "old magic." Perhaps the only topic to which Hemingway returns as often as his admiration for the French is his disdain for American tourists, the large majority of whom he dismisses as "loafers" in search of "atmosphere." Hemingway's frustration, which he directs at the "scum of Greenwich Village," announces the voice of an insider, an enthusiastic flaneur enmeshed in what he labels the "broad and lovely country."
Those familiar with Hemingway will recognize more, however, than traces of his stylistic signature; in this collection are the roots of several of his most celebrated stories. Describing his lodgings, for instance, Hemingway noted that his room was "clean, light, [and] well heated." A variation on this unassuming string of adjectives was, of course, to reappear four years later, when "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," one of his most popular stories, appeared. The relationship between the dispatches and Hemingway's novels is equally profound: sections of A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929, take as their inspiration the author's meditations on the Italian Front, memories of which he unveiled for his Canadian readership in 1922: "you would see poor old boys hoofing it along the side of the road to ease their bad feet," he wrote, "sweating along under their packs and rifles." In its detailed depiction of the Parisian scene, The Sun Also Rises owes a similar debt to Hemingway's early musings on French culture, history, and nightlife.
Not all of the columns reproduced here read with the maturity of the later works: in an extended piece on Parisian rug vendors, for instance, Hemingway stubbornly incorporates the adverbs -- "fiercely," "grimly," "brightly" -- which he would jettison as a novelist. His humor, too, was to become more refined, though several barbs at French politicians succeed in evoking laughter. Ultimately, On Paris sheds light on a critical period in the life, times, and development of one of America's most beloved authors.