Two Americans walk into a bar. No, seriously. Truth be told, not any old hole in the wall, it’s rather a notable hole in the wall, known in it’s day as The Dingo. The place is significant too, because you see, it’s Paris, and I should point out that it’s nineteen-twenty-something, so a very different Paris to the one that’s been headlining the news of late. It’s the quaintly gritty, wanton Paris that some years prior had seduced many of the world’s most celebrated expatriate Artists, the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Flaminio Modigliani, who’s spitefully posthumous legacies exploded long after their notoriously tortured and debauched existence.
But these are different days. The days of Le Salon and les bordellos, both frequented by penniless artists driven half mad by the fragile genius with which they painted and the turps soaked rags with which they unpainted, are no more than glassy ghosts and have given way to les tourists nouveaux. This is about the time where the “gay” crept into “gay Paris”, and I’m not talking about Oscar Wilde.
Now there’s only one thing more reviled than an American in Paris, and that’s two Americans in Paris, but at this particular time, the French happened to be remarkably predisposed toward their star spangled guests. Fresh in the minds of Parisians, perhaps, is the great French wine blight where they had acidly resorted to cross breeding their beloved virgin Champagne vine with a somewhat less cultured American rogue in a last ditch attempt to bring it back from the brink….and who wouldn’t be grateful for that, right? Or perhaps, they have a somehow innate appreciation for the fine artistic talent these particular guests have brought along with their well travelled Shwayder suitcases, for which even their affluent fellow Americans have not yet acquired a taste. The French know Art when they see it, even if it is a pasty, drunk yank passed out on a wonky wooden table. This is their birthright.
So these two young Americans meet for the first time to unwittingly forge one of the most endearing and complex friendships in the history of classic literature, one of them never having completed a novel, the other having had one or two smatterings of success and having just released a novel which despite critical approval is just not translating into sales. He is quoted as “puzzled and hurt that the book was not selling, but not at all bitter, and both shy and happy about the books quality”. They sit randomly among the strangers in the bar and the acquaintances they themselves describe as “worthless characters”, drink away their issues and bond over their burning desire for that pivotal breakthrough which will finally reveal them to the world, and afford them the lifestyle to which they’re both terribly eager to become accustomed. You read of this moment and so wish you could have captured in in a single, solid frame, because this moment, frozen in time, is one of the world’s most beautifully ironic treasures. The two privileged young strugglers are none other than Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the book that just can’t seem to get off the ground is, in fact, The Great Gatsby.
It leads you to wonder just how many fleeting moments have seen many a great mind reaching doggedly for some level of worldly credibility, never daring to imagine that they’re about to conjure that magical something that transcends both time and value. There is an instant of innocence before life’s mysteries unfold that if snapped in a screenshot would be an image of Neil Armstrong as a child staring vacantly at the moon or perhaps the half lit face of the Edison boy in the glow of a bed time candle, drowsily dreaming up new ways to stretch out the day.
Equally beautiful are the uniquely special friendships that emerge almost as byproducts of the creative process. We read of the delicate relationships between fellow elites, the likes of Haydn and Mozart, Van Gogh and Gaugin, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and we find it hard to imagine that these ageless bromances have lived often to overcome poverty, madness, professional jealousy, substance abuse, illness, even death. Especially death. Only they could truly understand the nature of talent they observed in one another and at all costs were driven to protect. Sadly, we know that most of these stories play out like dark and calamitous Shakespearian tragedies.
Fitzgerald is an indulged and peculiar person of questionable physical and emotional stability. He spends daringly and despite the fact that he has a precarious tolerance for alcohol, drinks well beyond his capacity. Most damningly, he marries an insanely jealous and well, perhaps, just quite simply insane woman, who tirelessly undermines his work and in Hemingway’s opinion, sucks the very life from him and brings about the disintegration of his career. He is never able to reprise the masterpiece that is The Great Gatsby. His great nemesis lies not in one of his fellow expatriate writers, but in himself.
Hemingway, on the other hand, makes up in pragmatism what he often lacks in sobriety. He goes on to publish many famous works and laments the demise of his dear if somewhat eccentric friend who despite his best efforts he is unable to save. He immortalises him with deep affection and admiration in his memoirs.
“‘His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust of a butterfly’s wings. At one point he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”