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Ask any aspiring writer or avid reader if there is a specific period in history to which they would like to return, and 1920s Paris is bound to be somewhere near the top of the list. As America was celebrating the Jazz Age, Paris was experiencing Les Années Folles (The Mad Years). The era saw the Lost Generation writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many others rub shoulders with everyone from Cole Porter to Ravel to Stravinsky.
While the era has undoubtedly been over romanticised, it is still the go-to daydream for writers, many of whom make pilgrimages to old haunts like La Closerie des Lilas or Shakespeare and Co when visiting the City of Light. But the best way to transport oneself back to that time is through a book, and below we look at three of the best:
Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast
“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.”
Hemingway was a bit of a rogue, of course, enjoying betting on horses, casino games, booze and, most famously, a string of affairs. Some of that shines through in a Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s beautiful account of his time in Paris before he found fame. The book is a who’s who of Paris at the time, with the author describing his adventures with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and his brushes with legendary figures like James Joyce. Yet, at its heart, A Moveable Feast is more than a love letter to a city; it is a snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers being forged by the hand of history. You could easily dispel the myth of the book by reading Paula McLain’s A Paris Wife, which tells the story from Hemingway’s wife’s, Hadley Richardson, point of view. But you don’t have to love the man to admire the words.
Janet Flanner – Paris Was Yesterday (1925-1939)
“Proust has been dead since 1922, yet the annual appearance of his posthumous works has left him, to the reader, alive. Now there is nothing left to publish. Five years after his interment, Proust seems dead for the first time.”
Writing under the pen-name Genêt, Flanner was the New Yorker’s Paris Correspondent from 1925 to 1975. Paris Was Yesterday is a collection of her best articles for the magazine, spanning the mid-20s up to the outbreak of the Second World War. It covers more than just the artists and writers, of course, and Flanner’s vivacious prose made reading about every facet of Parisian life and politics interesting. Indeed, it is perhaps the best testament to Flanner’s brilliant articles that the reader is left wanting to know more about the author, rather than her subject matter. And, Flanner was herself an important fixture in 1920s Paris.
Mary McAuliffe – When Paris Sizzled
“The mauve-colored romanticism of prewar days had disappeared in the shock of aerial bombardment and mustard gas.”
If you want a contemporary writer to transport you back to the 1920s of Hemingway and Ezra Pound, then look no further than Mary McAuliffe. In truth, you could choose any one of the great Paris books written by McAuliffe, but When Paris Sizzled is the perfect read for anyone looking to dive right back to Les Années Folles. McAuliffe has an encyclopedic knowledge of the era, reeling off anecdote after anecdote on Proust, Chanel, Porter et al. But it’s not just a collection of individual tales either; McAuliffe weaves them all together into a delightful patchwork. A remarkable book.