"The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with the pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink." Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
I have to say that writing in cafes, sitting at a table alone with an espresso, a pad and a pen, imagining I have a world of time in which to conjure words and put them down, counts among the top pleasures in my life.
In many ways I have Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to thank for that, as they launched my fascination with writing and literature about drinking and excess when I was in my 20s, when the Minimalists of the day weren't spending much time describing that, or much of anything. I especially have Hemingway to thank, Hemingway, who wrote better than anyone in his time about the pleasures of eating, imbibing and hanging out in bars and cafes.
Before Bourdain, there was Hemingway, and the two have much in common, mainly attitude and bravado -- which made their reputations in life and on the page. It's a tradition Norman Mailer was a part of too, but he just didn't have the charm -- for women anyway. If you want to charm a woman, you have to have at least a tinge of regret before you murder a beast or set out to betray your best friend. Mailer didn't care either way.
But let's get back to Hemingway and what makes him such a great travel writer. He had a penchant for describing his excursions into nature, making love to the elements before making a kill; and he wrote with as much gusto about eating as he did killing, describing drinking and dining in cafes in the 1920s better than anyone.
What makes The Sun Also Rises such a delectable read is it's short and busy, with Hemingway doing all he can to keep his characters drunk and charming. Between debauches, the narrator hangs in cafes, smoking and drinking coffee. "In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the Rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette."
But nights, you can barely make out the feisty reparte of characters over the boom of their raucous partying, which sometimes rings automatic: "We drank three bottles of the champagne and the count left the basket in my kitchen. We dined at a restaurant in the Bois. It was a good dinner. Food had an excellent place in the count's values. So did wine. The count was in fine form during the meal. So was Brett. It was a good party."
A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's collection of essays about living in Paris in the 20s as a young man, has its share of scenes in cafes, even if the memoir, edited by his fourth wife Mary and published in 1964, after his death, is laced with acerbic tales about his so-called friends like the Fitzgeralds.
After completing the draft of a story in a cafe, Hemingway writes about the pleasure of treating himself to a reward: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea, and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."Ah, what would Hemingway have been without his daily dose of a little alcohol, a rare morsel and a little death? It's hard to say. The man shot himself at 60 with his favorite rifle. He helped to impale the myth of the macho as a character worthy of praise in our culture. The legacy he left was tragic and bitter for those who knew him, and equally disenchanting for those he aspired to move.