Saint Germain des Pres is located in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, along the left bank of the Seine. This upscale neighborhood has played a major role in literary and philosophical history.
Prior to coming to Paris, I had just finished reading a wonderful book by Paula McLain. “The Paris Wife” is a historical fiction book written from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Earnest Hemingway’s first wife. It follows their relationship and Hemingway’s early writing career beginning in the states and moving on to Paris and Europe during the roaring twenties and turbulent thirties. So when I found out we were going to Paris, there were a few Hemingway haunts I knew I had to visit.
During the 1920’s young American writers, such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, traveled overseas to absorb the “happening scene” that was Paris: the roaring jazz music, the gathering of intellectuals, and the all-night parties were a major draw. The Brasserie Lipp was a favorite watering hole at the time and the site of an infamous “conversation” that took place between the two authors.
As Hemingway tells it, Fitzgerald invited him for lunch when it was called Michaud’s. “He said he had something important to ask me that meant more than anything in the world to him and that I must answer him absolutely truly,” Hemingway wrote. “I said that I would do the best that I could.” Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda had apparently been complaining about her husband’s plumbing. “A matter of measurements,” Fitzgerald explained. The two withdrew to the toilet. Fitzgerald dropped his drawers. Hemingway inspected. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he concluded. “You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.” “Those statues may not be accurate.” “They are pretty good,” Hemingway said. “Most people would settle for them.”
(“Hemingway’s Lipp and Fitzgerald’s Penis” Pappa’s Planet Blog By David Frey)
Directly on the bank of the Seine sits a marvelous independent English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company which has a rich history. It is actually the second bookstore by the same name. The first began in 1919 as a lending library/store by Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate. It became the center of literary American culture in Paris. Unfortunately, The original store closed in 1940 during the German occupation of France during WWII and never reopened.
Writers and artists of the “Lost Generation,” such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, George Antheil and Man Ray, spent a great deal of time there, and it was nicknamed “ Stratford-on-Odéon” by James Joyce, who used it as his office. (Wikipedia)
The second, and current, Shakespeare and Company was founded by American George Whitman in 1951. Originally called by a different name, it was patterned after Sylvia’s shop and became the literary hub in bohemian Paris for the “beat generation” of writers. In 1964, upon Sylvia Beach’s death, George renamed the store in honor of his friend. The bookstore has sleeping facilities, and Whitman claimed that as many as 40,000 people have slept there over the years!
Upon entering the store I felt like a little kid in a candy store. It’s mosaic floors, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, wood-beam exposed ceilings, twisty-turns, hidden rooms, narrow steps, old chairs that look like Hemingway himself may have sat in, and free-roaming house cats made me never want to leave, let alone step into a big-box-book-store ever again!
After WWII, Saint Germaine des Pres also became associated with the existentialist movement. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir could be found discussing their views or debating the nuances of their philosophies at the corner cafes of Cafe Flora or Les Deux Magots.
Of course no trip to this neighborhood would be complete without visiting Notre Dame. We headed over that way before the sun set and captured some amazing photographs. After a wonderful day traveling through literary history, we strolled into an Italian restaurant for dinner followed by giant scoops of gelato at Amorino.