Innocence Abroad

Oh, to be young and living in Paris. This is where it all begins—the pilgrimage of a master storyteller, his Great American Novel, and his Great American Friends.

In the last days I would ever feel like a young man, I went to live in Paris to finish the novel I was writing at the time, The Lords of Discipline. While attending the Citadel, I had gone into an uncontrollable rapture when I read Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. He made the city of Paris glisten with a romantic luster it has never lost for me, and I could think of no finer way to spend a part of my life than by writing a book in the storied, uncapturable city of literature and light.

My decision to go to Paris was both whimsical and spontaneous. Houghton Mifflin had just assigned me my third editor at the publishing company, the brilliant, young, and fastidious Jonathan Galassi, who was destined to be one of the greatest editors ever to walk the streets of New York. I had liked everything about Mr. Galassi until he called to tell me he had accepted a grant and a sabbatical to live in Paris and Rome for a year while he translated the essays of Eugenio Montale. It irritated me that I had never heard of Montale, but Jon was that kind of intellectual. His mind was the most exciting country he would ever visit. But it amazed me that he would be in Europe and unavailable when my novel made its shy appearance the following year.

"It's an outrage," I said on the phone. "It's a complete betrayal of our relationship as novelist and editor, Harvard boy."

"It's a done deal, Pat," he answered in his calm, mannerly editor's voice, which contained all the passion of a bivalve. "I've already accepted both the grant and the sabbatical."

"You can't do this to me," I said. "You just can't do it."

"Why don't you go with us?" he asked. "I'll work something out with Houghton Mifflin."

So I spent a cold and glorious winter in an overcast Paris, where it rained almost every day. Susan and Jonathan Galassi helped me find the reasonable, finely located Grand Hôtel des Balcons, just steps away from the Place de l'Odéon and the Luxembourg Gardens, in the sixth arrondissement. My concierge was a surly, imposing woman, but she brightened when I paid her the first month's rent, and she put me in a garret on the top floor with her other artistes. My room had a balcony, a sink, a bed, a very good desk and chair, and a view of the Eiffel Tower. The room cost me seven dollars a night, and every time I paid my rent, I felt I had just robbed a bank. The room was not only cheap, it came with a breakfast of croissants, butter, jam, and coffee. It was easy to fall in love with morning when it started off with such a simple but delicious feast.

From the very beginning, the writing went well. I learned to work with the French doors thrown open to the balcony, which also served as my refrigerator and wine cooler and cheese drawer. I learned to write to the rhythm and pace of French rain, and I could feel the story unfolding inside me as I filled up yellow legal pads in a language that few in the hotel could read. Though my French did not improve, I would feel the English language beginning to well up inside me as it formed itself into chandeliers and peacocks and burnished cutlery. I could feel the whole city doing its subtle, cunning work on me, as I had begun to write sentences that sounded more like stained-glass windows than clear-eyed explanations of the events at hand. Before that moment, I didn't know a writer's style could change, and that a strange, fascinating city could hasten the process along. Each time I walked out of the Hôtel des Balcons, I could turn in any direction and find a Paris of mysteries both heady and disquieting. In my mind, I could take along the novel I was working on. I could wander the inimitable greenness of the Luxembourg Gardens with characters who knew how to clean M1 rifles and spoke in southern accents.

If I veered right when I exited my hotel, I would soon be walking beside the river toward the islands of the Seine, or drifting through the imposing college buildings of the Sorbonne, watching the impeccably dressed diners enter La Tour d'Argent. Both day and night, I walked Paris as though it were duty and opportunity and chance of a lifetime. My mother had made me hunger for culture from the day I was born, and now I found myself a temporary citizen in a city that had given the world its most beautiful language and writers passionate enough and gifted enough to write books that were deathless and breathtaking in their execution. It was the winter I read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time from beginning to end, then visited his grave at Père-Lachaise Cemetery and had lunch there. When Parisians spoke to each other in restaurants and cafés, it sounded to me as though they were passing orchids and roses through their lips. I spoke French like a donkey, and no amount of mimicry or fakery could make any of the French think differently. There was not a French word I could not make potted meat of as it fell to the floor from the meat grinder of my tongue. There was not a single district in the city I could enter without becoming a laughingstock when I ordered a brioche or a dozen escargots.

In the evening I would often join Jonathan and Susan Galassi for dinner at a restaurant they had selected with great care for both its quality and relative cheapness. They were living in the lovely Hôtel des Grandes Écoles, across the street from the sawmill where Ernest and Hadley Hemingway had lived when they were young and poor and in love with Paris and each other.

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