A couple weeks back, I learned a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will be airing tonight on PBS, and last for three nights.
As a teenager, I enjoyed reading Hemingway — along with Stephen King, Tolkein, and comic books. And with the documentary soon arriving, I wondered about writing a short story with him as a character. I did that last year with Claude Monet, and the experiences of researching his life and crafting a story were fascinating: the research breathed life into Monet as a person, rather than a name on plaques next to his paintings in museums, and my attempt to capture some of that breathed life into a story that I hoped respected the man.
I started with Wikipedia’s Hemingway article to see if anything inspired an idea for a story, and I was immediately captured by this part:
In November 1956, while staying in Paris, he [Hemingway] was reminded of trunks he had stored in the Ritz Hotel in 1928 and never retrieved. Upon re-claiming and opening the trunks, Hemingway discovered they were filled with notebooks and writing from his Paris years. Excited about the discovery, when he returned to Cuba in early 1957, he began to shape the recovered work into his memoir A Moveable Feast.” — Wikipedia
I hadn’t heard of that event in Hemingway’s life, and the good fortune of it connected with me to begin a story. I made up a character, Lucien Clement, who claims to have known Hemingway in the ’20s and suggests the two of them spend a day visiting cafés and other spots that they frequented back then.
So I ask for the reader’s indulgence with the fictional actions and dialogue. Although, the locations are real.
Deliveries from Past and Future
by Dave Williams
The bearded man was so engrossed reading the newspaper article, he didn’t hear the question spoken by the bald man standing by him.
The bald man repeated the question, a notch louder—but not enough to be considered rude in the café of the Ritz Hotel: “Pardon?”
The bearded man gazed upward, supposing the person was the waiter. However, the standing man didn’t wear the formal uniform of a waiter. The bearded man said, “What is it?”
“I believe you are the person I seek,” the bald man said. “But I wish to check before I make a fool of myself. Are you the American writer Ernest Hemingway?”
The bearded man sized up the other man, done from the disadvantage of seated while the other stood. The bald man appeared to be in his early sixties, a little older than himself. The bald man had spoken with a French accent.
“I am,” the bearded man said. “Who are you?”
“Lucien Clement.” He extended a hand, which Hemingway clasped. Clement said, “We met many years ago, when you lived in Paris. I heard you were in town and I hoped to track you down. A wonderful opportunity to chat with you again.”
Hemingway squinted at the standing man. “You say we chatted back then? I don’t remember you. Did we talk only once?”
“More than that,” Lucien Clement said. “We talked in Madame Stein’s salons and the occasional café.”
After mentally reviewing the faces of people he had encountered thirty-plus years ago, Hemingway couldn’t find any who matched the face before him. But that could’ve been due to the man’s lack in standing out from the many people whom Hemingway had met. “I don’t remember you.”
“Ah, that is not a surprise,” Clement said, then smiled. “In the story of your life, I am a minor character. A very minor one. May I join you?”
Curiosity caused Hemingway to point his opened hand to the empty seat across the table. As the bald man sat, Hemingway said, “What are you playing at? Are you really a reporter trying to dig up dirt?”
Clement wore a sad expression. “I assure you I am not, sir. I could think of some incident or conversation from back then, and tell you. Would that convince you?”
“You could’ve read about it in the papers,” Hemingway said.
The waiter arrived and asked if the new gentleman would like to order. Clement asked for a café au lait, the same beverage in Hemingway’s cup. Hemingway asked for a refill. Clement put forth another request: if the waiter could ask Monsieur Ritz to pay them a visit.
Once the waiter departed, Hemingway said, “You know Charley?”
“A mutual friend of ours,” Clement said. “He is the reason I am here. He told me you are in Paris. He will vouch for me, that I am not a reporter.”
Hemingway was pleased. “I’d trust Charley’s word.”
“A trustworthy gentleman,” Clement said. “One who would keep a customer’s steamer trunks and not throw them in the rubbish.”
A chuckle came from Hemingway. “Old Charley told you about that, did he? That was a special moment. Day before yesterday, me and Charley and Aaron were having lunch here. Charley tells me outta nowhere that two of my trunks are in the basement.” Hemingway chuckled again. “Who would’ve thought? I figured they were lost. But Charley tells me nope, they’ve been stored away ever since the ’20s.”
“What a fantastic gift,” Lucien Clement said. “Those trunks even survived through a war.”
The last word darkened Hemingway’s face. “The damnable Nazis would’ve taken the trunks if they knew they were here. They stole a great deal of art in their invasions.”
“You had stories in the trunks? Your stories as art?”
“No,” Hemingway said. “They had a mish-mosh, clothes and letters and the like. But most important, my notebooks were still there. Notebooks filled with what I was up to back then.”
“Marvelous.” Clement grinned. “It is as if your younger self came back to talk with you.”
Pausing to think, Hemingway then said, “An odd way to describe it. But, yes, I suppose it’s like that.”
The waiter delivered two cups of café au lait on the table, said Monsieur Ritz would arrive shortly, and removed Hemingway’s old saucer and cup.
After Clement sipped the coffee and remarked on its good taste, Charles Ritz arrived tableside and bid good morning to the seated men. Thin mustached and wearing suit and tie, Charles said, “Ah, Lucien, good to see you’ve caught up to Papa.”
“Indeed,” Clement said.
“You know this fellow?” Hemingway said.
“Yes, yes, Lucien and I have been friends for many years,” Charley Ritz said.
“And he rambled around with us battered people back then?”
“He did,” Charley Ritz said. “Sometimes we talk of the old days. But we talk more of the present days. For some reason, he likes listening about my fly-fishing trips.”
Clement said, “I’ve told you. I like to imagine myself in the streams, forest all around.”
The three men made small talk, then Charles Ritz excused himself, saying he needed to return to his office. Clement asked Hemingway if the character reference satisfied Hemingway’s doubt. The writer said it did.
“I have a proposal for you,” Clement said. “If you are not busy today, I would enjoy visiting some café that were your favorites back then. A walk through memories. And I would very much like to talk about your books.”
Hemingway stroked his beard while mulling over the proposal. He had planned to read his notebooks, which he had done yesterday and the afternoon on the day before that. Yet here was the chance to revisit the old times in familiar places with an unfamiliar man, who might remember things that Hemingway had forgotten.
“I’m game,” Hemingway said. “Let’s do it.”
From statue to statue, the taxi crossing the Seine between them. Outside the Ritz Hotel, a tall column — its bronze turned green — with Napoleon looking small as he stood on the column’s far top. Then, after the taxi stopped, the statue of Marshal Ney was seen much closer to the ground. Also green tinted, the marshal held a sword aloft.
Hemingway went to stand by the statue and thought, You’re as strong as ever, my old friend.
The writer was warmly welcomed in La Closerie des Lilas. Inside the restaurant, Hemingway acted cordially to the staff while memories flooded his mind. Writing alone and nursing coffee. Talking with Ezra. Reading Scott’s book about the rich bootlegger with an unpleasant, garish cover of a woman’s sad eyes and lips hovering in the night sky over a glowing city. Celebrating with Joyce over Syvia’s decision to publish his rambling novel about a man rambling about his town.
Much had happened among these red-backed booths, mahogany bar, and terrace bordered with lilacs—which were hibernating in this November chill. Other patrons were here and there. Two ladies chatted at a table; two men at another.
As Hemingway and Clement sat and ordered lunch, they overheard the men at the other table discussing French military action in Egypt. One man’s opinion was that more soldiers should’ve been sent in to ensure the Suez Canal was taken. The second man disagreed, saying the soldiers were needed more in Algiers, to put down the guerillas.
“Both conflicts are horrific,” Clement said to his lunch partner. “Man rushes too quickly to violence. The leaders should’ve tried harder to talk through our differences. That would save many lives.”
“War is dirty business,” Hemingway said. “I was reading about Egypt when we met. But that looks to be over quicker than Algiers. That’s much nastier.”
“Did your character do something similar?” Clement said. “Roger, I think his name is? From your book named for a tolling bell?”
Hemingway didn’t try to cover his distaste for Clement’s mistakes. “The book is For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the man’s name is Robert Jordan. And you’re wrong. They aren’t similar. Far from it. Robert blew up a bridge to help the guerrillas fight fascists. They aren’t guerrillas in Algiers. They’re terrorists that target civilians. That’s despicable.”
Clement, forearms on the table, opened his hands, palms up—as if to receive a bowl. “Please pardon me. I meant no offense. A time has passed since I read the book. I forgot that detail.”
“It’s an important one.”
“You are right, of course,” Clement said. “Could you tell me of your experiences in the Spanish Civil War? And how that led to the book? I’m very interested.”
Hemingway took a drink of the red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. Did he want to sit here and chat, after this Clement tried to equate terrorists with Robert Jordan? Except, the man could’ve made a mistake. He would give the fellow a chance. The day could still bear fruit. The fellow could’ve turned out to be a living embodiment to the notebooks. Filling gaps in Hemingway’s memory.
That would have to wait, if Hemingway was to indulge Clement’s request. Hemingway found no reason to deny it. He didn’t have to offer keen details, more of an outline. So he spoke of Spain, that beautiful, sun-drenched country, in a far different time than his earlier visits of chumming with friends and watching bullfights. The fighting had turned into the mess that men wreak on other men. And that time, Hemingway’s chums were reporters. Including Martha.
Clement made for an attentive audience. Listening while eating haddock, poached egg, and spinach in butter cream sauce — further lubricated with Pouilly Fuisé. Hemingway took breaks in his storytelling to chew forkfuls of filet of beef, fired with bourbon, and potatoes.
Lunch had stretched from food with wine to just wine. Conversation had stretched from Spain to the ’20s, particularly of happenings inside La Closerie des Lilas.
Revisiting the memories brought a sadness to Hemingway. Some of those friends were no longer around: Gertrude, Scott, Joyce. Less painful to envision them as they had been rather than of the hole they had left. Better images showed when they were vigorous and exchanged ideas and argued and drank deep of life. As if each was a sculptor working on the sculpture of himself or herself, and contributing to the sculptures of their friends.
Back then they had no way of knowing about their futures, which were shrouded in mystery. Some people had met some successes in their arts. Others had written fine stories that did not excite the reading public. When he died, poor Scott had been the name of a chap from the Roaring Twenties. But Scott would’ve been over the moon if he’d been alive when the bootlegger book became popular, even given out to troops during the Second World War.
Hemingway and Clement crossed the short distance from the restaurant to Jardin des Grands Explorateurs. A break from eating and sitting.
Yet again, Hemingway fantasized for the health of his younger years. Walking would’ve been more enjoyable without discomfort. An obvious frustration of growing old was not being able to do what you used to, but crashes through the years had accelerated that trajectory for him.
Even with that, Hemingway was grateful to be outside and breathing the crisp air in Paris. He had always loved the city’s display of elegance through architecture and cafés and flowers and bridges. And, as this garden of explorers exemplified, through statues and rows of trees. At one garden’s side, a large fountain’s statuary of turtles spewed water toward the rearing horses in the fountain’s center.
The opposite side of the garden led to the Jardin du Luxembourg that expanded in width and depth. Here, the trees created hedge-like walls. The tree trunks were bare of branches from earth up to perhaps five feet, where branches began. The branches were trimmed, and the trees grew so close together, that the branches and leaves formed uniform walls in rows. Now they were orange walls, the color glowing in the sun.
“You told me before,” Clement said, “how you walked in these gardens to keep your mind away from food. I thought that was a good way to focus your thoughts. I enjoy walking here and try to let my thoughts wander. It’s beautiful. A garden of Eden within the city.”
“Doesn’t feel like Eden to me.” Hemingway gestured to the groups of people seated on chairs and benches. “All these folks instead of God’s array of animals.”
“They do take away from the Eden idea, yes,” Clement said. “I see them as islands scattered in the streams of pathways.”
Hemingway peered at his companion. “A curious way to say it. What do you do?”
Clement seemed pleased to be asked about himself, instead of the conversation centering on Hemingway. Clement said, “I am a philosopher. I teach, I publish books.”
“Books, huh?” Hemingway’s peering grew in curiosity. “Would I have heard of them?”
“I doubt you would,” Clement said. “They are not as successful as yours, but I like to imagine they have shaken up the thoughts of one or two people. They are thinking books, not books of action like yours.”
“No, no, please do not get the wrong impression,” Clement said. “The places in them are quite important. War, of course. And the sea. I much admired The Old Man and the Sea. It felt right to me. To my time in life. An old man struggles against a mighty fish. That fish could be other things to other old men and women. All of us have struggles. And they feel more difficult as we grow older.”
“They sure as hell do.”
“Would you like to see my books?” Clement asked. “I know a good bookstore.”
“Me too. There’s a decent chance both of us are thinking of the same one.”
They had reached the large octagonal fountain somewhat in the middle of the garden. Behind the fountain stood Palais du Luxembourg, looking like the stately home of a lord amid his richly manicured estate.
Heading east would’ve been shorter to reach a street on which to hail a taxi, but Clement requested they walk in the other direction, to stop at the Statue of Liberty before leaving the garden. Hemingway said that was fine. For him, seeing the statue had always caused the odd sensation of déjà vu. Before Paris, he had been used to Lady Liberty associated with New York City. However, here it stood. Different size, different place. As if the statue had decided to take a vacation and shrank to fit within airplane regulations. The vacation had turned into a permanent home.
The smell of Shakespeare and Company was particular to the store, not the place—since the bookstore’s location had change from when Hemingway went there in the ’20s to now. From Rue de l’Odéon, a short walk north from Luxembourg Gardens, to next to the Seine on Rue de la Bûcherie, a farther walk from the gardens. Or a short taxi ride.
The shop made Hemingway think of learning and generosity. Of course customers could buy books, but the store also served as a library and temporary flat. Sylvia had generously allowed Hemingway to borrow books, and he had absorbed stories of Russian masters. A blessing to one with very few francs in his pocket. The single bed on the store’s second floor had been used by many travelers. Finding a refuge to rest during their journeys.
As Hemingway and Clement said “bonjour” to the clerk behind the counter, Hemingway thought of how some women consistently wore a signature perfume, so one associates a perfume’s aroma with specific woman.
Every available space on the walls’ shelves was fit with books. Spines stood and spines lay flat, as pieces in a puzzle. Hemingway had never seen another bookshop as crammed with books, and the bursting-at-the-seams image gave him comfort. Books should be treasured, and this place did that.
Clement led them to the philosophy section, moved his finger along the book spines as a guide for his eyes, found two books, slid them out, and handed them to Hemingway. On the cover of Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades, an illustration of a circular staircase heading up—or down—with no beginning or ending. On the cover of Un palais infini, a room with an archway leading to another room, repeating in the distance, reducing in size until the rooms and archways reached a vanishing point. Lucien Clement’s name was on the bottom of both books.
Hemingway easily translated the titles: “Babel of stairs and arcades. Infinite palace.” Flipping through Babel, he asked, “What are these about?”
Clement suggested they head up to the second floor to talk. They ascended the creaky staircase then walked to the front room with windows offering views of the Seine and Notre Dame. This room gave sources of warmth to Hemingway: sunlight, walls of books, joys he had of reading here. Chairs were next to two walls, and one chair was occupied by a lady who looked up from her book as the men entered.
“This is fortuitous,” Clement said as he and Hemingway sat on chairs in the row opposite to the lady. “When we were younger, you and I chatted for much of an afternoon here. Perhaps the only time we talked one on one.”
After a moment of thought, Hemingway said, “I don’t remember that. What we talk about?”
“Many things. I do not remember all the details, but I remember we talked of Proust, Dumas, Baudelaire, and Henri Bergson. I am sure there were others, but they do not come to mind.”
Hemingway chuckled. “That could’ve been in any conversation I had with any of my chums back then in any café.”
“As with me,” Clement said. “But I know it was here. You spoke of your admiration of In Search of Lost Time, of Proust’s concentration on his growing up. Although you found it long-winded and too long. You particularly enjoyed his recollection of the madeleines that Proust dipped in tea. How he could still remember that taste.”
“I still like that.” Hemingway smiled. “Something strong that sticks with you.”
“That influenced me in my philosophy.” Clement tipped his head toward the two books Hemingway held on his lap. Clement said, “Along with Bergson. He was a big influence.”
“And what is that philosophy? What is this Tower of Babel and this palace?” Hemingway’s finger tapped the top book, the one with stairs on the cover.
“They are us,” Clement said. “You, me, everyone. The titles try to tell the idea that we are constantly evolving and recreating ourselves.”
“Think so? So we don’t stay the same?”
“In some ways, yes,” the philosopher said. “But in other ways, we keep changing. Some ways are small. Others are larger, such as marrying your lover and becoming a parent.”
“Sure, sure, but those happen just a few times in a person’s life. Some more than others, of course.” Hemingway appeared wistful.
“Ah, the small changes are those we change more often,” Clement said. “That connects with my beliefs about time. I am not the first to come up with these beliefs. But I like to imagine that I have put my own fine point on them.”
“What, that we walk around and around some stairs somewhere and never reach the top?”
Clement grinned. “Close, actually. Time is a line and a spiral. We measure time, of course. Second after second. Counting them all the way up to days and years and more. That is the line. But it is only one way to think of time. There are other ways. Time is relative to each person and that person’s mood in the moment.”
“Okay,” Hemingway said. “Einstein came up with that idea.”
“Indeed,” Clement said. “To me, however, there is more complexity. How we see time on a large scale, more than a mere moment. How we see a year passing, a decade passing. A boy turns twenty years old, and his parents say, ‘Where did the time go? Wasn’t our son just a child a year ago? How did our son grow from five years old to twenty in the blink of an eye?’ I do not have children, but I have heard many parents say such a comment.”
Clement continued, “Time changes in our mind. Our memories of the past change as we age. Our thoughts of the future also change. When we are young, our life feels that it will last forever. We cannot see the end. As we age, we know more about how there is an ending. And as we grow older, our sense of self changes. And we change our memories. For example, we can change memories that make us feel shame. We do that to soften the shame and make ourselves feel better. That is how we constantly evolve.”
Hemingway scratched his neck below his beard. “Interesting food for thought.”
“Much of what I believe is from Bergson. I fear I am a pale imitation of Bergson. His ideas have fascinated me, and I have added my own thoughts to them. But I am not a world-changer. Not like you.”
“You’ve contributed to the world,” Hemingway said as he tapped the book again.
“I tried.” Clement cleared his throat before shifting the conversation: “That is part of why I wished to talk with you today. Not just to reminisce, but to see how the discovery of your notebooks has affected you. A delivery from your past self. Does it change how you see the future?”
“Not really, no. Why would it? It’s about the past.”
“How about we talk about that over dinner?” Clement asked. “I could use the sustenance.”
“Fine. I could eat.”
Clement gazed out of the windows before they left, and he said, “I enjoy the afternoon sunlight in the city. What seemed true at the first light of dawn becomes more complicated. More nuanced.”
Hemingway followed the view of the river, church, and other buildings. “I don’t agree about nuanced. But the sun certainly changes throughout the day.”
The taxi brought the gentlemen to Montparnasse, a street full of restaurants, to the corner where Le Dôme Café stood. Elegant as she always was. The warm lighting invited you inside, and once inside, you were embraced by its refined softness against the wood of the walls.
Tabled, Hemingway and Clement began with a dozen marennes oysters each and shared a bottle of Sancerre. They chose to not resume the paused conversation until the oysters were eaten. The combination of the sea and Paris was too delectable to move their focus elsewhere; the food and wine demanded their attention.
As the men sipped wine after a waiter took away the empty oyster trays, Clement said, “A marvelous way to continue our day. We are feasting our way through the past. A feast that moves from café to café and through our memories. A moveable feast, if you will?”
“Possibly,” Hemingway said. “I’d have to think that one over. Now what’s this business about how I see the future?”
Clement’s grin exuded warmth like the restaurant’s small lamps. “I meant if it changes your plans for the future. What of writing a book of your adventures? I imagine many people would find such a book interesting. I would. And not just for people who were there. People who are too young to have lived in that time.”
Hemingway scanned the other patrons, noting the ones who appeared young enough to fit that category. “The idea’s got merit, I’ll give you that.”
“It is a gamble I would take,” Clement said. “It would be history. A glimpse at another era through your eyes. But not just any era, but a time of much change. Picasso was changing art, James Joyce with literature. And you could write of your love for Paris. How the city is a celebration.”
“You know, I think you’re on to something there.”
“The notebooks are gifts,” Clement said. “That won’t happen with the suitcase Hadley lost at the train station.”
The door closed on Hemingway’s budding enthusiasm, replaced by bitterness unsmoothed after more years since the two trunks were left at the Ritz. In the early ’20s. Winter. Hadley boarded a train at Gare de Lyon to meet him in Geneva. She left the suitcase to buy refreshment. A spineless coward stole the suitcase while she was gone. Nearly all his manuscripts were in that suitcase. The thievery broke Hemingway into pieces which took a while to reassemble.
“Why the hell would you bring that up?” Hemingway demanded.
Clement spread his fingers. “My apologies. I meant no offense. I wished to show how a loss usually remains a loss. Not with your notebooks, however.”
The tension hung above the table as the waiter arrived and delivered plates: roasted turbo with hollandaise for Clement, sole meunière for Hemingway, who ordered another bottle of Sancerre. Neither man ate while the tension stayed.
“You’d have to know that’s a sore spot for me,” Hemingway said.
“Understandable,” Clement replied. “It was a great shame. And it serves to show how rare this event. Time has spiraled backward and created a loop.”
“You’re speaking English, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Clement said, “Please give me a few minutes to explain. When I was a younger man, I had hair on my head. Now it grows on the sides and back, but I shave it off.” The philosopher slid a hand on his bald head. “When you were a younger man, you wore a black mustache. Now you have a white beard. Of course this happens naturally as we age. Black to white. As if we switch sides on a chess board.”
“What does facial hair have to do with chess?”
“Merely a symbol for what I mean,” Clement said. “Please, we need to start this meal. We do not want it to get cold. Bon appétit, my friend.”
Hemingway didn’t argue, and the men ate a couple bites of the fish on the white octagonal plates. The delicious food helped calm Hemingway’s annoyance.
“We get older and our view of the world changes,” Clement said. “Similar to switching sides in chess. Here is your chance to switch sides back to your younger self with that admirable mustache.”
“You have a strange way of talking.”
“Perhaps because I am a philosopher,” Clement said. “Perhaps it is individual to who I am. But I try to communicate how the notebooks can rejuvenate you. I remember you and your wife were in horrible crashes a couple years ago.”
Just when Hemingway was heading toward a properly pleasant mood for dining in such a restaurant, he was yanked back to gloom. Up to the tragedies, the trip in Africa had been refreshing. In an aerial safari over the Belgian Congo, he and Mary were having a grand time. The plane’s wing collided with an electrical pole. Bruised, the Hemingways aimed to fly the next day to a city with a hospital. During take-off, the second plane burst into flames in a hellish scene. Ernest and Mary finally made it to that hospital, where he had the surreal experience of reading his obituaries in newspapers. That same year, he had won the Nobel.
Fortune smiled at you, but she also spit in your face. Or, like a boxer, landed two consecutive punches on your jaw because her hands were so quick, you didn’t see them flying at you.
Through the gloom, Hemingway could still see the lantern held by the odd man across the table. A rejuvenation. Hemingway had finished a set of short stories before embarking for Europe. Those stories were fine. Now he could head in a different direction. One that could breathe the vitality of youth into his battered body. A hopeful direction of new works and finished ones he’d started years ago.
Hemingway gently swirled his wine glass, sniffed the wine before sipping the cool liquid. He said, “I’m going to give it a shot. This book. But no more of this strange talk. And after this, I’m heading to Harry’s for a stiffer drink. Nobody makes a better cocktail than at Harry’s.”
Clement, clearly enjoying the writer’s decisions, said, “And I would very much like to join you with that drink.”
copyright © 2021 Dave Williams