Books in the Background 8: Hemingway's France

Ron Berman


Terry Mort's current Hemingway at War states that "far from being a bohemian artist's carefree paradise of pleasant memory, Paris was a cauldron of competing moral and political factions—and had been throughout the thirties. (And, in truth, had been periodically throughout its history.)" Paris isn't carefree in Hemingway:  Jake Barnes watches "people going to work" and he begins his own working day reading  "the French morning papers" which are necessarily about domestic and foreign problems. Yet he and other newsmen who want "to know the answers" get nothing out of the "foreign-office mouthpiece" at the Quai d' Orsay. The implication is not that France has no problems but that government won't talk about them.  The Toronto Daily Star columns assess inflation, costs of living, and marketplace conflicts like that between "the artists of Paris" and  "the Rotunde crowd."  The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2 describe social conditions, as in two letters of January 1925 to Bill Smith, telling him how far "money in Paris" might go and comparing national incomes.  Later that year Hemingway wrote Ezra Pound, telling him that he was working on his first novel which was "all about Paris" and describing the not-very "wonderful" French and their character. He was more interested than many expatriates in France outside of Montparnasse.


France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror. By Jonathan Fenby. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015. 536pp. $29.99

This book places our knowledge of the twenties and thirties in Paris within a much larger narrative, that of France making its transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. The grim postwar recovery itself took a number of years: "triumph after more than four years of war came at a cost for France that would permeate politics, the economy, society, and thinking for two decades.  There were, to start with, 1.5 million dead; as a proportion of the population, the toll was slightly more than in Germany and twice the level of Britain . . . . Of the six million survivors, half were wounded, some mutilated, shell shocked or confined to a wheelchair . . . . The nation was, in the words of the writer Jean Giraudoux, who had been wounded several times, gripped by 'fatigue, fatigue' (247)."  The country through which Hemingway travelled did not really "recover" because industry and farming were hit hard by the financial crisis of 1920-1922 and provincial life especially suffered greatly. (Rural scenes and street photography from Atget's Dealer in Second-hand Goods in 1898 to the Savoie of André Kertész in 1929 shows grand subjects and expensive style—and even more of whole streets of small business in Dickensian ruin). Postwar shortages were everywhere and epidemics worsened the effects of war. We tend to think solely of the effects of inflation but money was sponged up by payments to America, low national productivity—and always by political corruption. 

France, largely a political and economic history, accompanies discussion of each era with a review of its culture. The cultural sections mention things (Coco Chanel changed style) that can't possibly be understood in a sentence, deliverances that cuisine was good and literature was good and people came to Paris to see its art. But these sections at least do show that that expatriates lived within a society intent on style and with many economic successes. It wasn't all La Rotunde; French steamships, airplanes, automobiles, perfumes, and wines captured the upscale international market. Even without the contribution to the arts by expatriates France was formidable.

How does that connect with pessimism about social problems? Fenby's thesis is that many were inherited.  His section on "Haves and have-nots" describes the burden of political failures at the start of the twentieth century: "The decades after 1870 were troubled by recurrent crises involving presidents of the republic, ministers, parliamentarians, and shady financiers amid anti-Republican and anti-Semitic resentment. Anarchist violence killed one president.  Others were forced to resign after trying to stage a constitutional coup . . . .  Strikes became more common, put down with extreme force in some instances . . . .  There was a pervasive questioning of progress, and concern, especially among intellectuals who fretted at belonging to 'a society about to disappear'. . . . Jules Ferry warned that 'It is written in the destinies of this country to find its men inferior to circumstances'" (197).  We think of war memories, but these other unsettling events also were recalled by those who had lived through them.

According to Fenby, there were two sets of problems for French citizens around 1920.  First were underlying domestic problems of class and ideology. Before the war France endured conflict between metropolis and provinces, Catholics and secularists, radicals and conservatives.  Those remained, and the "frequently changing governments" (233) of the nineteenth century did not solve the lingering problem of economic inequality. In addition, there were new ones caused by the dozens of governments from Clemenceau to De Gaulle. Government by factions caused politicians to form short-lived and ineffective coalitions. Social values were by no means universally shared: Fenby states that the electorate was split into many conflicting groups even within the same parties. He is broadly in agreement with other historians: Ruchir Sharma states in The Rise and Fall of Nations that while taxes and public expenditures in France have been among the highest in the world, there has never been enough funding to satisfy all beneficiaries; Jeremy Black notes in the Wall Street Journal that neither left nor right have had a convincing program for social and economic welfare.

While expats in the 1920s thought about the rate of exchange, citizens were concerned with things like cuts in civil service jobs. Everyone wondered where all the money had gone from German reparations, but much of that came in the form of  "non-existent" bonds.  Loan payments to America had to be made with real money. Since France was one of the victorious nations more was expected.  Political leadership remained a matter of mercurial coalitions all of whom wanted a share (and more) of limited resources. Hemingway could see some of the implied contradictions.  French attitudes about money were shaped by character, by culture—and by the universal recognition that scarcity had political causes. One might well believe in liberty but be quite suspicious of assertions about equality and brotherhood.  

Ron Berman 05/05/2017

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