The Expatriate Literary Scene in Paris

Anthony Cuthbertson, “From the Lost to the Beat to Now,” Notes From the Underground 19 November 2010

The expatriate literary scene in Paris

What Allen Ginsberg called, ‘The bewildering beauty of Paris’ has attracted writers and artists for centuries. It has been the setting of great novels and the home of great writers, and in the last hundred years has briefly been the stage for two waves of expatriate writers that changed the face of modern literature: the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Fifty years have passed since the latter faded away, and though the expatriate literary scene has remained vibrant, no significant movement has since emerged. However, with the arrival of new soirées, literary journals, writers’ workshops and readings, as well as a fresh generation of writers flocking to Paris, a new wave may well be rolling in.

Historically, Paris has been a place of refuge for artists and writers. It has attracted political and cultural exiles fleeing the injustice and intolerance of their homelands, offering them a liberal safe haven and allowing them artistic freedom. In the 1920’s and 1950’s it became a place of escape for those left disenfranchised by the World Wars. The Génération perdue, as Gertrude Stein named them, included writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and later James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. They were a generation disillusioned by the horrors they had witnessed in the First World War, and who felt disaffected and betrayed by their governments back home. Pound wrote of his contemporaries, ‘(they) walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie’. They gathered in cafés and hung about Stein’s salon to share ideas, bottles of absinthe and write, together forming a movement that still resonates strongly today.

By the time the Second World War and the occupation of Paris came about, these writers had for the most part moved on. Although some later returned after the war (Hemingway famously ‘liberated’ rue de l’Odéon, the then site of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company), a new literary movement in the form of the Beat Generation arrived. Leading figures of the Beats, including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, came to Paris for much the same reasons as their predecessors. They sought refuge from the strict conformist confines of McCarthy-era America and found it in Paris. In the years that have followed the departure of the Beats, Paris has remained a centre for culture and art. It continues to attract writers and artists with its history and beauty and the lively literary scene is a reflection of its magnetism.

The first stop for any would-be writer or literary pilgrim should be Shakespeare & Company. Its location may have moved over the years but the spirit and the name have remained. The current owner, George Whitman, has described it as ‘a den of poets and anarchists disguised as a bookshop’, having been sanctuary to writers of both the Lost and Beat Generations. The writers, whom George refers to as ‘tumbleweeds’, drift through the doors and find community and lodging in the poky upstairs rooms in exchange for helping out in the shop below. Supporting young writers continues to be one of the cornerstones of S&C. As well as providing a place to stay, they hold workshops, readings and even organize a literary festival every other year. They have also recently relaunched their literary magazine (The Paris Magazine), and announced the Paris Literary Prize (10,000€) for unpublished writers. In its current location on the banks of the Seine it is as much a tourist attraction as it is a bookshop, but between the piles of books still remain bunks for the next hopeful Hemingway to stay.

Beyond this pillar of the past not much remains of the old haunts of writers beyond landmarks and tourist traps. It is easy to get lost wallowing in the myth of Paris but for new writers it is essential to escape the seductive expatriate past, away from the romance of the Latin quarter and the ghosts that wander the left bank, and over to the other side of the river to where the literary scene is shifting.
Boulevard Saint Germain and its surrounds have developed from bohemian havens to bourgeois hangouts popular with tourists. The cafés once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and Joyce, such as Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Le Dôme, now sell souvenir memorabilia and a cup of coffee can set you back six euros.

Nowadays it is areas like Belleville and the 19th and 20th arrondissements in the east of Paris where the cost of living is the cheapest that have become the new centres of the literary scene. These parts of Paris continue to provide a conducive environment for young and aspiring writers.

Paris-based writers have often remarked that unlike other big city literary communities, Paris has an open-minded and accepting scene that encourages experimental forms and welcomes outsiders. David Barnes, the founder and compère of a spoken word poetry night in Belleville at Culture Rapide, describes Paris as “a beautiful backwater where life is slower than New York or London. It gives breathing space, distance from the anglo-metropoles that supports writing”.

He argues that the English speaking community in Paris is just the right size “to come together and do something, to provide a home and platform for, to nurture and be nourished by.” The spoken word nights that take place every week welcome anyone and everyone up on stage to read a poem, tell a story or perform a play — the only rule being ‘make the words come alive’. A collective has formed around this café with regulars comprising English speakers from around the world.

In an age where literary scenes and movements are becoming more international by way of the internet, less centred around a location and more around uniting notions and ideals, Paris has managed to retain its place as one of the world’s literary hubs. Since the turn of this century, a movement referred to as the Offbeat Generation has partly formed in Paris. They comprise of a loose collection of like-minded writers, including Lee Rourke and Booker prize nominee Tom McCarthy, who feel alienated by a mainstream publishing industry dominated by marketing. Paris is home to the founder of this movement, Andrew Gallix, whose Paris-based literary magazine 3:AM has provided the main platform for the Offbeats.

Other English language literary magazines that have formed in Paris in recent years include Double Change, Upstairs at Duroc and Platform. The most recent of these, Platform, formed around the spoken word night at Culture Rapide.

As fate would have it, this new scene that is emerging is forming beside where many of their predecessors have found their final resting place: the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is behind these gates that you can find the graves of such literary icons as Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

Its legacy may be one of the great appeals of Paris, though it is the smallness and accessibility of the anglophone writing communities, combined with their supportive and inclusive atmospheres, that is currently causing such a surge in the scene. It seems now that the stories shape the city as much as the city once shaped the stories and for any aspiring writer coming to Paris it would be easy to feel intimidated by the past. For them it is perhaps best to consider again the words of Allen Ginsberg: “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem a burden”. The scenes may be as transient as the writers, but the essence of Paris endures.