SURELY my expectation of friendship with McAlmon was soundly based, for not only had he got my stories published, he had been willing to publish them himself. My curiosity about this generous man was immense. Of all the Americans who had been in Paris—those who appear in memoirs and movies—McAlmon is the overlooked man. Not only did his Contact Press first publish Hemingway, but it published Gertrude Stem’s The Making of Americans. And as I found out, he had the friendship of Joyce and Pound as well as William Carlos Williams. He was willing to help any writer of talent. And what did he get for it? Sneers and open hostility. Suppose he did write sloppy prose himself. It was his awareness of what was fresh and new and good in other writers that made him enormously superior to his detractors—the aesthetes. The writers about writers. In his letters to me he had shown himself arrogant and contemptuous, but I didn’t hold it against him; it had given his letters an edge, a tang. And I had felt the secret envy of him in some of my friends in New York, for marrying Bryher, the writer, who was the daughter of Sir John Ellerman, the shipping magnate, one of the rich men of England. After bumming his way across America, doing everything from dishwashing to modelling for painters and sculptors in New York, it had been a very nice thing for him to marry a rich girl and get a handsome divorce settlement, but I had always believed his story that he hadn’t been aware it was to be a marriage in name only; he had insisted he was willing to be interested in women. And with the money, what did he do? Spend it all on himself? No, he became a publisher, he spent the money on other people he believed in.
In New York I heard this little ditty:
I’d rather live in Oregon
And pack salmon
Than live in Nice
And write like Robert McAlmon
And this little ditty was in my mind when I rapped on his hotel door, and it opened, and at last there he was. “How are you, come on in,” McAlmon said laconically. He looked a little like his letters; about thirty-five, sort of nervous and crowded and with restless blue eyes. About my height, he was slim, long-nosed, thin-lipped and handsome, and, of course he had the arrogant or contemptuous tilt to his head. But his low-toned greeting put me off. Entering the room I seemed to know he had looked at me and been unimpressed. It’s hard to meet a , man who has helped you from afar and believe you see this look in his eyes. But I didn’t understand that if Tolstoy himself had appeared suddenly in the room McAlmon wouldn’t have been impressed. And I can see too, now, that the encounter was a comic checkmating of two temperaments; it had to be casual and laconic. “As a young reporter I had acquired an air of being professionally unimpressed. With him the same attitude was a point of honour. And so we faced each other after three years of letter writing as if we had been having a beer every afternoon for years.
Pointing at the packed bag on the bed he explained that in an hour he was leaving for the South of France. To meet me, to part from me so quickly, it was all the same to him, he didn’t care, his eyes seemed to say. So I, for my part, didn’t sound the slightest bit brokenhearted at the news. How unsentimental we were as we sized each other up, he, hardly looking, and I watching him directly all the time! Sitting down, he looked straight at me for the first time. He began to thaw. He even smiled at me as he talked about the Quarter with a belittling wit that made me laugh. His lip kept twisting in an ironic smile. I began to like him, not as you approvingly like a man, but as if you knew you would have some strange sneaking liking and respect for him no matter how badly he behaved. And that was the way it always was to be between me and McAlmon. Now I wished he wasn’t going away. Suppose no one known to me was in Paris and we were left alone?
I asked if Hemingway was in town. It brought McAlmon to life in another way; it was as if he saw that I was counting on meeting another good friend. It upset him and he brooded over it. He and Hemingway didn’t see much of each other now, he admitted. With his curling lip, McAlmon could never admit he had been hurt in a friendship; it had to be the other way around; this way: Hemingway had revealed an aspect of his personality that made one look down his nose at him. With a little laugh and a careless wave of his hand, as if it were really all unimportant, he nevertheless began to belittle Ernest. They had gone together to Spain, he drawled. In Spain, he had been the one who had introduced Hemingway to the run of the little bulls at Pamplona. Coming back, at one of the train stops, there had been a corpse rotting in the sun—a dog, an animal of some kind. And Hemingway, contemplating the sunlight on the rotting flesh, had said it was beautiful Oh Christ, McAlmon said derisively. What posturing!
His derision upset me. What was the cause of it? What was he holding against Ernest? I reminded him that Baudelaire had written a good poem about a corpse. That cynical twisted grin came on his face. “Oh, sure!” he jeered, “Hemingway probably read it too.” While I argued with him he knew I was resisting his view of Ernest. I remembered that Ernest had once admired Him enough to dedicate a book to him. It annoyed him and he got up and looked out the window and I joined him, asking if it was true the rue Vaugirard was the longest street in Paris. It was, he said. Coming back to Ernest, he told a scandalous story of something he claimed had happened between them on that trip back from Spain. And I remember thinking, Oh, Bob, you’re all wrong even if you don’t believe you’re wrong. You wouldn’t be talking this way if you weren’t hurt. Is it that you think Ernest has forgotten that you helped him and hasn’t tried to get you a publisher in New York?
Poor Bob, if he only could have restrained his malice when he thought he had been belittled; if he could only have known that he was wrong in thinking Ernest, in his success, had forgotten about him and wouldn’t lift a hand to help him. Within a year, back in New York, I was to learn that Hemingway had persuaded Perkins at Scribner’s to publish a book of McAlmon’s. Yes, at lunch Perkins told me grimly there was something he wanted me to know about my friend McAlmon, whom I kept mentioning. As a favour to Hemingway, and only as a favour, mind you, they had planned to publish a novel of McAlmon’s. McAlmon had come to New York for the inevitable lunch with Perkins. At this lunch McAlmon had told about the trip to Spain and his scandalous interpretation of an incident, not knowing that in his malice he was trying to destroy the man who was secretly helping him. Perkins said to me belligerently, “I tell you this because McAlmon is your friend. You too may have wondered if Hemingway forgot him. Well, he didn’t.” Then Perkins added sternly, “I don’t care if you tell McAlmon why we’re not publishing his book. I hope you do tell him.” And I was silent and sad.
But there in McAlmon’s hotel room I couldn’t know what was going to happen. I remember he saw that he had upset me, and brushing aside the talk about Ernest, he became a quite charming man. Chuckling, he told me there were two “bright boys” from Montreal in the Quarter, and I should surely meet them, and he laughed. He gave me their names. He would leave word I was around. He suggested that I come and stay at the hotel and he would know where to look for me on his return to Paris. In the meantime he had to catch a train.
Leaving his hotel, I was gloomy, half convinced that writers couldn’t go on being friends. Something would always happen that would make them shy away from each other. McAlmon had said Ernest now didn’t want to have other writers as friends. In that case he wouldn’t care whether or not he saw me. It could be that I was now just another writer, not an old friend.
That night Loretto and I, staying on the Right Bank, went to a movie where we were quickly reminded we were in Paris and not at home. The usher led us to a good seat. After we had been watching the movie for fifteen minutes the usher returned, asked to see our tickets, gave our seats to two other patrons who had tipped her, and led us back to the rear. So we had at least learned one thing in Paris: in a theatre you have to tip the usher. I told Loretto there was something else we might as well learn just as quickly: to feel at home in Paris all by ourselves. There was no reason why writers, admiring each other’s works, should like each other, personally, or even want to see each other. Let us, therefore, prepare ourselves to be on our own from now on. She, for her part, said she knew she was going to be happy in Paris whether or not we ever saw Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and even if McAlmon never came back. We would move to the Paris—New York Hotel tomorrow and look over our chosen neighbourhood. And we did this. We moved to McAlmon’s hotel. Just at twilight next day we were on our way up rue Vaugirard, and turning along Montparnasse by the station. For a few blocks Montparnasse was a dismal stretch of boulevard, but then we came to the Raspail corner and the cafes.
On one corner was the Dome, which not long ago had been merely a zinc bar with a small terrace; now it was like the crowded bleachers at an old ball park, the chairs and the tables set in low rows extending as far as the next cafe, the Coupole. It had an even longer crowded terrace. Opposite the Dome, on the other corner, was the Rotonde, where painters and a great many Scandinavians used to sit. Beside it, and by the intersecting side street, was a small new cafe. An intersecting street separated it from the Select, which was open all night. We sat at the Coupole. The faces in rows there looked more international, whereas at the Dome there seemed to be hundreds of recognizable Americans; men and women who, like us, had just got off the boat and were there for a night. Naturally we rejected all these too familiar faces. As it got darker the whole corner seemed to brighten and take on its own exotic life.
In those days they used to say if you sat there long enough you were bound to see someone you knew come strolling by. We watched and waited hopefully. We watched the taxis jammed at the corner making trouble for the gendarmes. It looked as if the taxi drivers were doing it deliberately, half taunting the gendarmes. It was to become such a familiar sight; there was, for example, to be the night when the drunken American poet, fighting with the gendarmes, got knocked cold. They were dragging him by the neck over the rough cobblestones; then the taxis, manoeuvring, suddenly had the cops and their prey hemmed in, the taxi horns all hooting wildly, the traffic at the corner getting hopelessly snarled. The hemmed-in cops had to wait until the prostrate poet came to, so they could get him on his feet and let him have the dignity of walking away with them out of the taxi ring. In those days taxi drivers and artists seemed to have something in common.
But that first night, sitting there as strangers, wondering hopefully if Joyce, or Pound, or Fitzgerald or Ford, someone we would recognize, might pass by, we didn’t feel lonely or out of place.
The corner was like a great bowl of light, little figures moving into it and fading out, and beyond was all of Paris. 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.
When we had had our fill of the faces and the snatches of conversation at the Coupole, we strolled along the boulevard as far as the Closerie des Lilas. How lovely the lighted tables spread out under the chestnut trees looked that April night; a little oasis of conviviality! Apollinaire’s Cafe. We had a drink there under the trees and listened to a street singer and a fiddler till the weather suddenly turned cooler. Loretto wished she had worn a jacket. When she shivered we got up and walked away. Arm in arm we walked down the Boul’ Mich’, wondering why the big cafes were half deserted, cafes that in Oscar Wilde’s time had been crowded, for this had been his territory. Every generation seemed to pick out its own territory in Paris, we agreed. Down at the Seine we stood for a long time together, watching the reflection of the coloured lights on the river. Against the sky were the towers of Notre Dame. Oh, Catherine Medici, you Renaissance snob, why did you cut off those towers? Wandering along the quai I did the thing I used to do back home, whisper lines of Poe: “And thou wert all to me, love, a fountain and a shrine…” My father and mother read a little prose, but I had grown, up learning poetry by heart from them, and Poe was a great favourite in our house. And then as we stopped, watching the river, Loretto hummed, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” We felt very confident and I said I would look up Hemingway tomorrow.
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