Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Paris Diaries

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway

It is a magical time and place - Paris in the twenties. Hemingway is a struggling young writer. There is little money and he has a wife and baby to support. But he is part of a set of writers and artists who are or will be household names. It’s literary voyeurism at its best.
A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death. A set of sketches of his time in Paris during his first marriage with Hadley, it shows us a Hemingway trying to become the Hemingway the world knows today, crafting his literary style, making and discarding friends, building up to the nastiness and the greatness he became known for later. The title is taken from something he said about Paris - “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
In a lot of ways, Paris is the hero of the book. It’s a Paris that has probably all but disappeared a long time ago - a place where a struggling young artist could live cheaply and well, where there was Sylvia Beach and her book shop providing literary sustenance, where Ezra Pound created a fund to save TS Eliot from his bank job to allow him to write full time, where there are cafes to write in and parks to walk through, where there would always be a fellow-writer to go on trips with. It’s lovely and romantic, especially when you know your writing is going well, and you feel the world is there for the taking. Watching a beautiful young woman waiting for someone in a cafe he is writing in, Hemingway says “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.” It’s heady!
He writes about the famous figures he encounters. He doesn’t flatter, he is downright nasty sometimes. Fitzgerald is weak and a drunk, Zelda undermines his confidence, jealous of his writing and scornful of his manhood. His novel The Great Gatsby is pure genius and just for that Hemingway is willing to forgive him anything. Ford Maddox Ford has terrible breath and lies all the time and is disliked intensely by Hemingway. Ezra Pound is generous to a fault, even to writers not deserving of it. Gertrude Stein has regressive views on homosexuality, she plays favourites with the writers and artists invited to her home, and she has a falling out with Hemingway. James Joyce is a hero who frequents a restaurant Hemingway cannot afford, yet he attempts to go there hoping to catch a glimpse. All of this is terribly interesting and voyeuristic and is the literary equivalent of People magazine.
But what binds me to this book is Hemingway’s notes on his writing progress and his own consciousness of the purpose of his life - the writing, always the writing. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” It does not matter that he is poor and has sometimes to go hungry. It does not matter that the artists and famous people he meets always manage to disappoint him. He is writing and writing well. “Do not worry,” he tells himself, “ You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Hemingway is probably describing the happiest time of his life - married to Hadley whom he loves, probably the only woman he ever truly loved, living in beautiful Paris, moving among probable geniuses, and crafting his own literary legacy. It is a deeply evocative book. An older Hemingway manages to capture a more innocent time, a time when anything seemed possible, when everything seemed a bit more clear.

To be young and in Paris. It’s pure heaven. Especially when as an adult you know how it’s all going to end.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Last Days of Summer

Kaup Beach
You are not a beach person. You hate the sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. And never having learnt to swim well, you are afraid of the sea. So the weekend getaway to a beach one hopes will be an exception to the general feeling a beach evokes.
The Blue Matsya
The Blue Matsya is a lovely little house right on Kaup beach, about an hour away from Mangalore airport. It has blue slatted french windows that lead to a porch on the ground floor and a balcony on the first. Both of which look out into the sea, less than a 100 m away. Awesome location and you are quite smitten at first sight.
And then, even you, who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the water, realize the magic of close proximity to the sea. The sound of the waves, the rhythmic beat of it, the infinite stretch into the horizon. And if you happen to be sitting on The Blue Matsya’s balcony at night, with the lights of the house switched off, the intoxicant of your choice in your hand, the waves sounding a symphony in the background, the dark empty beach in front of you, the stars playing hide and seek with the clouds above you - well, you hit a moment of near perfection, when you begin to shed all those minor irritants at the back of your mind, when you tell yourself, I am happy now, in an Eckhardt Tolle kind of way.And then after a long while, you go back in and fall asleep to the lulling sound of the waves.
View from bedroom
You wake up to a glorious Saturday morning. You sit out on the porch, with Nancy Mitford on your Kindle and the beach still whispering its magic. You can sit there forever. But breakfast and tea come calling, and once done with that, you tell yourself, it would be a shame to refuse the invite of the water. So you go in to dip your toes and end up with sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. But you don’t fail to notice the water is cool, the sand is warm and the beach is virtually empty. You come back to the house and settle back on the porch with Nancy. The waves keep pounding the shore, the temperature climbs up and you catch yourself dozing. Until your stomach reminds you it’s time for lunch, which is just a phone call away.
But you decide to walk the kilometer to Ravi Anna’s for his fish. So you walk and you walk and lose your way and the sun is blazing hot, and just when you are beginning to question the sanity of the decision, you find yourself in this tiny place smelling of frying fish, right next to the highway. You sit on plastic chairs and eat fish curry and fried fish and red rice on a plantain leaf, and it’s as good a fish curry as any you have tasted in your keralite-i-know-all-about-fish life. You eat till you are stuffed and then you walk back along the highway. A bad decision - it’s hot and the concrete road has little charm. But you sweat yourself back up to the cool house by the beach and plonk yourself right back on the porch. An afternoon nap is inevitable, the sea breeze and the sound of the waves cooling you off. And this time you wake up to chai and mangoes.
Mangoes! Not the Mumbai Alphonso variety, but your childhood summer ones, the ones you threw stones at, to bring them down from trees, never knowing if they would have insects in them, the sweetness tasting sweeter because of the effort and the uncertainty. And then more plonking. On a hammock, now, swayed by the evening breeze, warmed by the setting sun. It’s a slice-of-paradise moment, one you can bring up in your mind’s eye when you are dozing off in a conference room in the not so distant future.
You rouse yourself and make the effort to get to the lighthouse, a 100 metres away from the house,
The Kaup lighthouse
down the beach. There are holiday makers there - semi-clad men and fully-clad women. You do a bit of jostling and climb up. The setting sun, the sea, the breeze. Ah! Again, a moment to capture in your inner camera, to savour later on a not-so-kind day. You walk back in semi-darkness to the house, where wine, the stars and more delicious food await you.
And so the last days of summer come to an end. You have a flight to catch that will take you back to life’s hustle. But a warm beach and a lovely house on it have created some memories that can make that hustle just a bit more bearable. And for that, you are immensely grateful.

For more information on The Blue Matsya, visit