La Closerie des Lilas

Diana Caudill

While the majority of The Sun Also Rises is set in Pamplona, Spain, the majority of it was written in Paris–more specifically at La Closerie des Lilas, presently a restaurant, brasserie, and piano bar. I read the menu, and noticed a small sentence printed below the name at the top of the card: “Le plus ancien café littéraire de Paris,” a direct, yet subtle reference to its literary roots. The restaurant as it stands today, however, no longer seems to cater to down-and-out writers. I had originally intended to spend an hour or so here, enjoy a glass of wine, and get a better feel for the place than what could merely be seen from the outside. This didn’t happen. Firstly because I did not have €11 to spend on said glass of wine (the cheapest on the dinner menu), and secondly because the restaurant didn’t appear particularly suited to a solo diner; there were long rows of tables and benches which were filled with large groups of people. The fame that literary greatness has afforded the place has, perhaps, transformed it into a much more “luxe” restaurant.

I resigned myself to awkwardly peering in from a window on one side of the bar to see if there were any tangible remnants inside the dining room of Hemingway’s time spent there. It was the exact antithesis of flânerie if there ever were such a thing–me gaping at the diners, as I could not afford to eat at the restaurant myself, and jotting notes down in a large journal while an annoyed waiter glared back at me. Through these two minutes of mortified, self-conscious observation, I noted that there was a small black-and-white photo of Hemingway behind the bar next to the rows-upon-rows of liqueur. A fitting location, I decided. It was interesting that the restaurant chose to recognize the writer’s time there, but not in a glaring way–not even in a contextual setting. Hemingway is not pictured enjoying a drink at the bar of La Closerie, but standing on a sidewalk staring solemnly into the camera.

Hemingway wasn’t the only famous writer to pass time at La Closerie. Their website claims many more–including André Breton, Émile Zola, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound–as frequent patrons. According to this site, the café, during its heyday, was a diverse meeting-ground for these “penniless” thinkers and the bourgeoisie; it first attracted artists as it was a post station on the road to Fontainebleau, and then drew in the bourgeoisie due to its proximity to the famous Bullier ball. During the 1920s, its location in the Latin Quarter made it convenient as a workplace for writers (like Hemingway) who lived closeby. According to him, he chose the place because it was, “the only decent café in our neighborhood… it was warm in the winter and the terrace was lovely in the spring and fall…” A nice escape, one could suppose, from his small and (in the winter) uncomfortably cold apartment described in A Moveable Feast.

La Closerie is still located at the same address as when Hemingway recorded these observations, but whether or not it has maintained its original flavor would be debatable. It is situated at the crossing of two large boulevards. It struck me as the perfect setting for aflâneur to write: wide, sweeping views of the large intersection of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The café, however, has blocked off the outside terrace from this view. There are tall, thick hedges that surround every side–a striking difference from the vintage photographs on the menu which show tables spilling out of the café with nothing separating them from the rest of the sidewalk. I could barely peek through the branches to gain a view of the interior of the restaurant. Perhaps this is the point. It is, after all, somewhat of a tourist destination; a quick Google search informed me that several “literary tours” of Paris stop at this location. Prying eyes and flashing cameras would lessen the ambiance of one’s cozy €50+ dinner, after all.

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