Three writers, three quartiers: living in 1920s Paris
SIMENON SIMENON. SIMENON, ORWELL, HEMINGWAY
Tre scrittori, tre quartieri: vivere a Parigi nel 1920
SIMENON SIMENON. SIMENON, ORWELL, HEMINGWAY
Trois écrivains, trois quartiers: vivre à Paris en 1920
In this article, I will look at three Parisian quartiers “shared” to a greater or lesser degree by Simenon, Orwell and Hemingway during their time in 1920s Paris and which figure prominently in their writings. First, the quartier des grands hôtels, in central Paris: in addition to providing the setting of Maigret’s investigation in Les Caves du Majestic (1942) and the backdrop to several important episodes in Pietr le Letton (1931), this was the location of the “Hôtel X” where Orwell worked as a dishwasher in 1929, an experience recounted in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and the Hôtel Ritz, whose bar was patronised by Hemingway and where, before leaving Paris in 1928, he stored the notebooks that would form the basis for A Moveable Feast (1964). Secondly, the area around rue Mouffetard, where Louis Cuchas, Simenon’s Le Petit Saint (1965), spent his childhood and adolescence and where Hemingway and Orwell lived during their Parisian years. Finally, the brasseries and restaurants of the boulevard Montparnasse, frequented by fictional wealthy Americans and international bohemians in La Tête d’un homme (1932) as well as by the real-life characters of Hemingway’s memoir.
Simenon’s Hôtel Majestic resembles in all particulars Orwell’s “Hôtel X”, which was either the Hôtel Crillon or Hôtel Lotti. The clients are predominantly wealthy Americans and Maigret with his plebeian origins looks and feels out of place: ‘Maigret’s presence at the Majestic inevitably carried a suggestion of hostility. He was a kind of foreign body its organism would not assimilate’ (Pietr le Letton). Behind the scenes, in the service quarters where meals are prepared for the guests, the contrast with the opulence of the restaurant is striking, with cooks, waiters, kitchen staff and dishwashers scurrying around madly in the service of the wealthy: ‘Between one and three o’clock the agitation was at its height, the rhythm so rapid that it resembled a speeded-up film’ (Les Caves du Majestic). Orwell’s description of the working environment in the caféterie of a Parisian luxury hotel is even more graphic: ‘It was amusing to look around the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining room. There sat the customers in all their splendour […], and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth.’ The restaurant staff at the Majestic and the Hôtel X are organised in a strict hierarchy, symbolised for Simenon by their different dress code – chef’s white hats for the cooks, dinner jackets for the waiters, aprons for the cellar staff – and Orwell comments that ‘our staff had their prestige graded as accurately as that of soldiers, and a cook or waiter was as much above a plongeur as a captain above a private. Highest of all came the manager, who could sack anybody, even the cooks.’
When he was not working, Orwell lived in a furnished room in the rue du Pot-de-Fer in the same quartier as the apartment of Hemingway and his wife Hadley in the rue du Cardinal-Lemoine. The autobiographical memories of the Englishman and American concerning the area correspond strongly to Simenon’s description of the rue Mouffetard in the period preceding and following the Great War in Le Petit Saint. All three authors insist on the generalised poverty of the quartier: for Orwell, ‘it was quite a representative Paris slum’; the Cuchas family’s apartment, as described by Simenon, is cramped and lacking furniture with a cold-water tap on the landing and a toilet in the yard; and Hemingway recounts that ‘home in the rue du Cardinal-Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities’. Yet Orwell also remarks that ‘amid the noise and dirt, lived the usual respectable French shopkeepers, bakers and laundresses […], keeping themselves to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes’; this could equally be a description of Cuchas’s ‘Uncle Hector [who] ran a butcher’s shop at the corner of the rue du Pot-de-Fer.’ Orwell and Simenon are also in agreement concerning the multinational composition of the quartier’s inhabitants, from the Poles, Arabs and Italians of the former’s lodging house to the absent Russian father of Cuchas’s half-brother, his mother’s Czech lover, the Italian family on the floor above with seven or eight children and his recollection that ‘not everyone spoke French. There was a little girl and her brother who had almond eyes [and] a tall, thick-lipped negro.’
Along with many of his compatriots, Hemingway had been attracted to Paris by three factors: the extremely favourable exchange rate, the prohibition in 1920 of the sale of alcohol in the United States and the city’s burgeoning population of writers and artists from throughout the world, many of whom were concentrated in Montparnasse. Simenon was himself part of the Montparnasse scene becoming a regular at venues such as La Coupole, La Rotonde and Le Dôme, establishments also patronised by Hemingway and numerous other expatriates. This did not prevent Simenon from presenting a less than flattering portrait of the milieu in La Tête d’un homme as ‘the somewhat tawdry crowd from Montparnasse’. Neither does Louis Cuchas identify with ‘the Montparnasse painters, who had invaded the fourteenth arrondissement after the war and who could be seen and heard, talking all languages, first at the Rotonde and on the terrace of the Dôme and later at the Coupole’. Hemingway, although he frequently satirises authors with whom he quarrelled in Paris, is generally positive about the café environment devoting whole chapters of his book to ‘Pascin at the Dôme’ and ‘Evan Shipman at the Lilas’.
Three writers, then, with three quartiers in common but each with his own specific relation to the social geography of Paris.
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