THAT SUMMER IN PARIS
By Morley Callaghan
Exile Classics/IPG, $19.95, 271 pages
Ever since I read "A Moveable Feast," Ernest Hemingway's marvelously evocative memoir of his salad days in 1920s Paris, I have known just how special it was for him and his generation of American writers. However, I never really appreciated the enduring grip it still had on those aspiring to follow in their footsteps until I saw Woody Allen's 2011 movie "Midnight in Paris." Through the eyes of the young protagonist (played by Owen Wilson), Paris really did still belong to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and their cohort. The film was absolutely authentic as well as believable, and not just because of Mr. Allen's talent. When those 1920s literati were perceived so vividly that their Paris trumped the reality of the present-day city, the neophyte's passion equaled Victorian poet Robert Browning's in his paean to his great Romantic forebear: "And Did You See Shelley Plain?"
Although when I was a student in Paris nearly half a century ago, it was for me more the city of Pascal and Racine than Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I understood the pull its interwar American heyday exerted on so many then. Morley Callaghan's memoir might have borrowed Dean Acheson's title for his, "Present at the Creation," for unlike so many who have written about that seminal period, he was actually there.
Not as some onlooker, either. Although not widely known now, the young Canadian came armed with praise and encouragement from the legendary New York editor, Maxwell Perkins, so key to the installation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the firmament of modern American literature. Newly married and starry-eyed, Callaghan looked up to them, but he seemed then to be set on the same path they had so recently traveled, and his encounters with them were up close, personal and not at all metaphysical. In fact, you might say they were brutally real and decidedly physical.
Their shared background in journalism (at the same paper, The Toronto Star) and athleticism gave Callaghan and Hemingway a natural affinity, but also an equally powerful opportunity for rivalry. Central to Hemingway's persona as a macho man of letters was his boxing, and no sooner does Callaghan show up at his Paris apartment than he is challenged to a brief bout right there among the tea cups and fine furniture in the living room. Hemingway practically forces the gloves on him, and although the Canadian is more concerned with not damaging the artifacts of Mrs. Hemingway's gracious living, he acquits himself sufficiently well to become her husband's steady sparring partner for the rest of that summer.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot about boxing in these pages, and if this is a turn-off for some readers, they need to get over it, because otherwise they will miss out on something that is the central metaphor of the Hemingway-Callaghan dynamic. Perhaps the greatest virtue of "That Summer In Paris" (released this year by IPG publishers in an expanded edition) is that it is a true testament to the reality of what made Paris "the literary capital of America" back then. Callaghan takes you along on an evening with the great James Joyce to experience his unique sense of humor and appreciate his wife's sensuality so familiar from Molly Bloom's monologue in "Ulysses." He shows you the less pleasant side of Sylvia Beach and Ford Madox Ford without in any way diminishing their importance in that world.
There are unique and priceless insights picked up along the way, such as Hemingway needing a new wife for each of his masterpieces. However, it is in the ring with Hemingway — no drawing room venues now — that he really gets to know the man. Hemingway can be nonchalant about Callaghan's propensity to make his mouth bleed but spits full in his face when irked by a blow, trying to mollify him by saying that is what bullfighters — another staple of his personal mythology — do. He even draws the younger man into his odd relationship with Fitzgerald, who on one memorable occasion acts as their timekeeper, with disastrous results.
Indeed, this particular fight became an evolving carnival of claims and counterclaims, apologies and escalating demands for more mayhem, challenges for a rematch, laying of blame that might seem comical were it not so serious a matter for Hemingway and even for Fitzgerald, also sharply and uniquely delineated by Callaghan. That all this amounts to building blocks in deadly earnest mythmaking is clear. Callaghan is an evocative and convincing writer, and in this memoir, as in his reviews of various books on Hemingway and Fitzgerald that round out the volume, he provides indispensable testimony. The young hero of "Midnight in Paris" dreamed of encounters on an American-Parisian Olympus, but Callaghan actually had flesh and blood ones in that legendary summer before the stock market crash, and so many personal ones as well, brought all those revels to an end.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.