Saturday, August 13, 2005

Orwell's Paris

Today I did the unthinkable and went on a walking tour of 'Hemingway's Paris'. Why unthinkable? Because if you have ambitions to be a writer yourself, it seems really bad karma to be trying to retrace the footsteps of other writers who have gone before.

This vein in my character goes back a long way, even to when I was a nineteen year old student inter-railing around Europe with a friend. We bought a copy of Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises' and would sit in various idyllic parts of Paris, reading it to each other. Weird eh?

The characters in 'The Sun also Rises' travel south to Spain, and so did we, walking across the Pyrenees and ending up very sweaty one night in Zaragoza where a succession of Pensione owners slammed their doors in our faces. We went back to the railway station and caught the next wagon out of there, which was a troop train full of drunken infantrymen travelling South to Alicante. Young soldiers were everywhere, imposing themselves on numerous poor families who seemed to be taking a cheap nightime journey.

We found the last remaining space on the train in a compartment which contained only one sleeping man. Just after we had stowed our rucksacks, he opened his eyes, stared grimly in front of him, then threw up the contents of a litre sized bottle of YOP! yoghurt drink that he had recently downed. Shocked and amazed at his own redecorating prowess, he got up and walked straight out of the door without saying a word.

My friend and I looked at each other, sighed, and then settled down for a good night's sleep, stretched out on the long benches on either side of the compartment. We weren't bothered much after the first couple of curious fellow passengers slid back the compartment door, then quickly closed it again, retching.

As it turned out, our particular penitence was nothing compared to that of people who had not found a compartment, as the passage was swimming in sewage by the morning.

Staying in a youth hostel in Alicante, it took us three days to recover from our ordeal, lying on metal bunk beds, eating slices from an enormous green melon that my friend had bought in the market. The dormitory was vast and scantily furnished apart from the metal beds and a large empty cupboard that acted as a very effective amplifier to the woodworm that were gnawing it to pieces.

We were still reading the book when we finally travelled back to Nice where, unfortunately, one evening I left it in a plastic bag leaning against a bus stop. When I came back to find it, it had gone. It wouldn't have been so bad if the bag hadn't also contained a large exercise book containing all the poetry I had written during the last few months.

That night we couldn't find anywhere to sleep at all, so we got out our sleeping bags in the little park next to the youth hostel and snuggled up with about fifty or so similarly bereft souls under the stars. I still remember vividly the loss of those poems, the pinpoints of flickering light in the black that grew more and more numerous the harder you stared, and the gentle rustling of the warm wind in the trees overhead.

But now, returning to the present, and having seen the real 'Hemingway's Paris', I realise that my friend and I were rather wide of the mark. Our idea of Hemingway's Paris was to sit by the Seine with a baguette, some cheese and a jar of gherkins. The real Hemingway would more likely have been sitting outside a bar in the Latin Quarter.

But it was a good tour, the guide was diligent, we got to see where Joyce wrote Ulysses, where Hemingway lived with his first wife, the apartment in the eaves where he wrote, looking out over the roof tops of Paris. The haunts of Hemingway were all well-marked with marble plaques, but on the house where George Orwell lived at 6 Rue du Pot de Fer (that's it in the photo), there was not a scribble.

Personally, I prefer the writing of Orwell to that of Hemingway. Orwell has a wicked sense of humour, he is observant and he can bring the odd characters of Paris to life. I think that during the short period he was here, he was equally, if not more integrated into Parisian life. He spoke french and longed to find out about the lives of the poor in the Latin Quarter, even living that life for himself while he found work as a plongeur (dishwasher) or lay sick in the poor hospital with the first attacks of tuberculosis that later killed him at a relatively young age.

So it seems a little unfair that the work of Hemingway is so much in the ascendent here. Undoubtedly it has more to do with the large number of American tourists who flock to Paris, all weaned, apparently, on 'A Moveable Feast'. But, I have to tell them, Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' is just as good and what's more, it was published in 1933 unlike Hemingway's book which is a memoir of the 1920s not published until the 1960s.

I went into a very good french bookshop which is just downstairs from the apartment where Hemingway lived. The owner was welcoming and conversational. When I asked her if she knew that Orwell had lived just around the corner, it was a revelation for her. When I told her he had writen a book about this quartier, she was even more surprised and quickly fished out a pen to scribble the title down. So there's hope yet.

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