Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève

The Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève is a rather unassuming street within the Latin Quarter of Paris. It cuts through a small portion of the Fifth Arrondissement down a hill from the Pantheon towards the Maubert-Mutualité metro stop. From certain points along the road, one can get a mediocre shot of the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. The street’s character is established by a fair number of wine shops, booksellers, and restaurants, none of them particularly interesting. The Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont on the top of the hill at the southern end is one noteworthy sight, but the most significant attribute of the locale as a whole is probably its ability to transport intoxicated pedestrians from one point in the district to a slightly less elevated one.

In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway chose to mention the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève during an important scene within his work The Sun Also Rises. The protagonist of the novel, Jake Barnes, begins this scene by propositioning a prostitute to join him for dinner. The two make their way to the Latin Quarter, where they are accompanied by several of Jake’s friends. This larger group in turn journeys to the aforementioned street in order to attend a “bal musette.” Later in the evening, Barnes encounters the Lady Brett Ashley, and it is at this point that she first makes the acquaintance of Robert Cohn. This sequence of events is depicted in the simplest way possible, without any sort of contemplation on the part of the speaker as to the possible profound emotional implications therein, and it really could have been set anywhere.

Through a closer analysis of Jake’s narration, the reader may perceive a tremendous vulnerability and emotional volatility in his character. He chooses to not reveal these aspects of his character directly, as he wishes to spend the greater part of the novel being more of a stoic observer. Like the archetypical flaneur, Jake Barnes loses himself within the streets of Paris and within the action of the narrative. Whether Hemingway consciously realized it or not, the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève is an effective symbol of this lifestyle. It is a street that is largely characteristic of its environment but is also, to a certain extent, subtle and tucked away. It is a locale in which one is able to blend into the crowd.

Hemingway did not provide a very detailed physical description of the rue in The Sun Also Rises, but the emotions of his protagonist offer a distinct sense of its boisterous aura. Jake Barnes experiences this episode from the novel in a pensive, analytical state. He half-heartedly attempts to entertain his friends and the prostitute, converses as little as possible, makes a point to criticize a loud group of young men, and leaves early in order to enjoy some quiet, thoughtful time with Brett. The music, movement, and sights of the locale are not enough to deter Jake from the personal drama shifting between him and his elite group. The street is thus presented as a perfect place to observe large groups of people without having to attract much attention, but also as a place that is ultimately less inspiring than the sounds of one’s own thoughts.

Today, the street hides a great deal of history beneath establishments that cater to a modern public. It has all the expected facilities: cafés, bars, assorted shops, etc. Near the approximate location where Jake Barnes attended a dance with his friends there now stands a concrete monstrosity in the guise of a police station. Most of the really interesting places to be rest outside of the rue’s furthest reaches, closer to the Seine. At present, the street maintains a quieter, subtler presence, its peace being broken only when it becomes a thoroughfare on weekend nights. There are no longer any prominent dance clubs, nor any other reasons for crowds to linger. But there is alcohol, and that should suffice for the latter-day flaneur. The contemporary public that frequents the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève still shows up with the same purpose as that of the Jazz era. This street is a proud testament to the Parisian pastime of which Hemingway was a master: getting drunk and watching everybody else.

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