Fascinated by John Baxter’s description of his literary walking tour down St. Germain, I read one of the memoirs that he mentions in his book The Most Beautiful Walk In The World. He mentioned three memoirs, but I immediately chose the only Canadian writer- Morley Callaghan’s book That Summer In Paris. Some book reviews compare his book to Hemingway’s memoir about Paris and complain that Callaghan’s book is drier – written more like a journalist than a novelist. I actually think that was a little of the author’s intention. He wasn’t writing a novel, he was recording his memories of one summer and he was doing his best to record these memories as objectively as anyone can when you are writing about yourself! It was important to get all the details written accurately of his growing relationship with Hemingway and Fitzgerald so that he could make sense of and so that his readers could understand how three friends allowed their relationship to fall apart after one seemingly small incident.
At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how Callaghan and his wife met Hemingway, Fitzgerald and James Joyce and about his perceptions of these different writers. Never a boxing fan, I suddenly became intrigued by the boxing bouts between Hemingway and Callaghan. I was saddened and even a little angry how these three men’s friendships crumbled over an incident that could have been resolved if they had been able to sit in the same room and chat. However, Callaghan was back in Canada and his publisher convinced him that the letters they had all exchanged had settled the conflict. I won’t spoil the story by telling you what caused the rift.
It must have been such an energizing environment when these writers and artists and philosophers fed upon each other’s belief that they were on the cusp of real change and edgy experimentation in the arts world. I envied their passion in this case for writing, but it could be for anything: “How secretly enchanted I was by the experience of being with people who regarded writing as more important than anything else on earth”.
And what a challenge that Callaghan offers to his readers when he writes what he once said to his wife: “Our job, I used to say to Loretto, was to be concerned with living and it seemed to me it would be most agreeable to God if we tried to realize all our possibilities here on earth, and hope we would always be so interested, so willing to lose ourselves in the fullness of living, and so hopeful that we will never ask why we were on this earth.
And as he reflected on how relationships can self-destruct, what I read resonated with truth from my own personal experiences : Whenever I would think of these two men who had been my friends, I would find myself growing fascinated at the way the little details, little vanities, little slights, shape all relationships. It is these things, not clashes over great principles, that turn people against each other.
As the book draws to an end, and 40 years have passed since these three men were friends, I was overwhelmed by the admiration and loyalty Callaghan still professed for Hemingway and Fitzgerald: Hemingway in his prime, the man I knew in Paris, the author of the early books and A Farewell To Arms, was perhaps the nicest man I had ever met. I can say the same for Fitzgerald. I liked those two men. In my heart I knew Ernest couldn’t possibly have turned into a swaggering, happy extrovert. How they ever got him into that light and how he put up with it, I don’t know. In the good old days he was a reticent man, often strangely ingrown and hidden with something sweet and gentle in him. But I was glad to hear that in the last year of his life out in Sun Valley, he talked to the photographer so affectionately about those days in Paris with Scott and me, and sent me at last his warm regards.
I can only hope that as Greg and I sit in the Coupole Restaurant imagining the bustle, the drinking, the noise, the disagreements, I too might get a glimpse of what Paris offered to these people and still offers to people who are listening: “Paris was around us, and how could it be alien in our minds and hearts even if no Frenchman ever spoke to us? What it offered to us was what it had offered to men from other countries for hundreds of years ;it was a lighted place where the imagination was free. Men have to make room for such places in their thoughts even if they never visit them.”
As I continue to read these books about Paris, while at the same time willing my body to heal so that we don’t have to cancel our plans to go, I appreciate Callaghan’s comments about the imagination. Through my reading, my imagination has been given freedom to soar -and as I share a drink with Callaghan and Hemingway, I have made room for Paris in my thoughts even if I don’t step foot on Parisian soil.