Culture thrives in the French capital, and its literary scene is no exception. Paris has been the home to many French-born and expatriate writers from across the globe, and the group of writers who made Paris their home in the early 20th Century are perhaps the most well-known of these writers. The Lost Generation, as they are known, have left their mark on the French capital, whether literally or literally. To this day, their fans worldwide have come to Paris to walk in their footsteps, and now you can as well.
“French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.”
That is how Oscar Wilde once described himself. The writer, best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, had a famously flamboyant taste, which meant only the city of Paris was luxurious enough for him.
His first trip to Paris, on a holiday with his mother, Wilde checked into L’Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, a glamorous hotel on the Seine that still operates today. His subsequent returns to the city were made after finishing university, which, combined with trips to the United States of America, would ultimately become his heyday, a brilliant but short-lived period of his life.
Living off of money from his lectures and essays, Oscar Wilde would wine and dine extravagantly. His two favourite haunts include Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, two renowned institutions in the chic Saint Germain neighbourhood. It was here that he would meet and discuss literature in impeccable French, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Stéphane Mallarmé and even Victor Hugo, though Hugo was reportedly immune to Wilde’s skill as a conversationalist.
Wilde also frequented more glamorous establishments like the Café de la Paix, which is now a registered monument that has an interior of baroque ceilings and resplendent chandeliers that rival the Palais Garnier itself. If not at the opera, Wilde could also be found at the Moulin Rouge, enjoying the club’s can-can-kicking and liqueur-flowing prime.
After being arrested and tried for gross indecency in the United Kingdom, Wilde returned to Paris, hoping to find solace in the city that had once been his stomping ground. However, he was now broke and largely shunned, living off of loans from former literary acquaintances. He was ejected from hotel after hotel, unable to make payment for his stays. One of these hotels, the Hotel Louvre Marsollier, is decked out in Wildean memorabilia, and is within walking distance from the Palais Garnier, a former favourite of Oscar Wilde.
The Hôtel de l’Alsace, Saint Germain would be the final hotel Oscar Wilde checked into, as he would die some months later in his hotel room, which itself was a far cry from the rooms he had lived in during his heyday. The hotel has since been renamed l’Hôtel, and refurbished with red marble pillars, muted leopard print carpet and a small domed atrium, making it more like Wilde’s luxe taste that it had been during his final months. The hotel has an Oscar Wilde suite, where guests can spend the night amongst framed Wildean artifacts and surrounded by flamboyant peacock wallpaper, which is a replica of the wallpaper from his dining room in London.
Finish your Wildean journey at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, at his final resting place. His tomb is marked by a vast headstone of a nude, Sphinx-like figure. Thousands of visitors flock to the tomb every year to pay their respects, and in the 1990s, a trend emerged where visitors would plant lipstick kisses on the surface of the monument. The different shades of lipstick began to stain the stonework, and now there is a glass barrier separating the tomb from the public, though visitors still leave kiss-marks on the glass instead.
Ernest Hemingway only made Paris his home for six short years, but it would later become some of the best known years of his life.
Hemingway was a frequent patron of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, like Oscar Wilde, as well as La Closerie de Lilas, where he would meet with other members of Paris’ literary elite. La Closerie de Lilas is also where he frequently went to write - much of The Sun Also Rises, arguably his most well-known work, was written there, and it is also where he first read the manuscript for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Hemingway also enjoyed the Luxembourg Gardens, where we would be able to experience nature in the city. He is also known to have hunted for pigeons in the gardens when finances were tight, though that’s not part of the experience of these gardens. In the evenings, Hemingway could be found in Harry’s New York Bar with other expatriates, and in other places prominent to the city’s jazz scene.
Eventually, Hemingway would leave Paris, after his second wife Pauline expressed a desire to return to the United States upon her pregnancy. He would also leave Paris with a prominent head scar, the result of an incident where he accidentally pulled a skylight down on his head, thinking it was the toilet chain.
And after Paris, he “never again lived in a big city”. As he once wrote, "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 movable feast.”
James Joyce was an Irish writer who had originally come to Paris to study medicine, despite already having had brief forays into the literary world in his university days in Dublin. It would be in his second return to the city that he would be established as an avant-garde writer, thus becoming one of the icons of his time.
In the 20 or so years that he had lived in Paris, he stayed in a variety of places, including the Hôtel Corneille, where he first stayed in Paris when he originally came to study, the luxurious Victoria Palace Hotel, which Joyce was able to afford due to a large sum of money from his generous patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, and 71 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine, the apartment in which he is thought to have finished editing Ulysees, his debut modernist novel that has become one of the most important works of the genre.
And like Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce could also have been found in Les Deux Magots, as well other former favourite haunts like Chez Francis in Place de l’Alma, and Fouquet’s along Avenue des Champs Elysées, where Joyce would write Finnegan’s Wake, his final novel that was 17 years in the making, while his family ate.
Shakespeare & Co.
In 1919, Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate opened Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore and a lending library, at 8 rue de Dupuytren. Two years later, the store would move to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odéon, and it is here that the store became a haven for the “Lost Generation”, and these writers could regularly be found amidst the shelves. In particular, this was where one could find works that had been banned, such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Beach also published the first full copies of James Joyce’s Ulysees, which was banned in both the US and Britain, and Ernest Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems. Shakespeare & Co. also hosted readings by historic figures such as Paul Valery and T.S. Eliot. Hemingway, who had a well-known rule of not reading in public even appeared for a rare reading with Stephen Spender.
The store closed down around 1941, during the German occupation of France in World War II, and though it was ‘personally liberated’ by Hemingway after the war ended, it never actually reopened again.
The establishment on the banks of the Seine at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, opposite the Notre-Dame Cathedral, is the second one of the name. First opened as Le Mistral in 1951 by American ex-serviceman George Whitman, the store was renamed in 1964, the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, and with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, who had ‘given’ him the name several years before. It then went on to serve even more renowned literary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Anaïn Nin and James Jones.
Since this Shakespeare & Co. opened, writers, artists, and intellectuals were invited to sleep among the shop’s shelves and piles of books, on small beds tucked into corners and shelves that doubled as benches in the daytime. An estimated 30,000 young and young-at-heart writers and artists have stayed in the bookshop, and they are known as Tumbleweeds, after the rolling thistles that “drift in and out with the winds of chance,” as George Whitman described.
Each Tumbleweed must do three things: read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours a day, and produce a one-page autobiography. The tens of thousands of autobiographies that have resulted now form an impressive archive, capturing generations of writers, travelers, and dreamers who have left behind pieces of their stories.
Now run by George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, Shakespeare & Co. also has a café where guests can enjoy a meal and a drink with their purchases, as well as hosting at least one free literary event each week. In conjunction with the Groot Foundation, the store also hosts the Paris Literary Prize, a novella contest open only to unpublished writers from around the world, and helping to keep the literary scene of Paris alive and kicking for many years.
In short, whether you are an aspiring writer yourself, or simply an admirer of the works of these literary figures, Paris is a great place to find inspiration, or at least to imitate the greats that have come before you in attempts to find your own voice.