Les Closeries des Lilas

Connor McCabe

Moving down Boulevard Montparnasse, one can see all of Hemingway’s old hideouts.  There is one in particular that lies on Montparnasse just before it becomes Boulevard Pont Royal.  Les Closeries des Lilas inhabits this corner of Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard Saint-Michel.  The striking thing about its exterior is that it is entirely made up of green vines.  It makes one stop and notice, but at the same time hides the interior of the restaurant.  One could pass by quite quickly with out realizing what was inside.  Usually, cafés will catch my eye immediately because of the people sitting outside or the welcoming feeling you get.  You don’t get this here because it is hiding itself and you can’t see anyone sitting.  I wondered what the exterior was like when Hemingway frequented the café, considering now you cannot sit and watch the activity occurring on the street.

I chose this place initially because I know it is where Hemingway spent a great deal of time writing The Sun Also Rises. It is also the café where Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to read the manuscript for The Great Gatsby.  There is a passage in A Moveable Feast that describes this particular evening that the two men spent at Les Closeries des Lilas.  Hemingway recalls how they “watched it get dusk and the people passing on the sidewalk and the grey light of the evening changing” (154).  Hemingway sat, wrote and watched the city at this café.  If you look at a picture of the café from Hemingway’s time, you can see so many people sitting outside the café; it looks like it was one of the most popular places in Paris.  It was the place to be.  And people wanted to go because they saw other people sitting outside there.

When I visited the site, I took a glance at the menu and promptly decided that I was not going to be able to dine in the restaurant, but that I would just have a drink and sit outside.  Something Hemingway might do as well.  Two older gentleman were eating lunch at the table next to me as were a young couple.  I sat and wrote for a while.  I could not observe the street because vines enclose the patio, forcing you to only look inward.  There was a pianist inside playing 1920’s style music.  For some reason though, the music just seemed incredibly artificial.  This thought was proved true by the fact that about a few minutes later he started playing Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  The servers were quite friendly, and the food looked good.  But the place seemed to be holding on to something that no longer existed anymore.  Something about it was just artificial to me.  It was so empty and the area surrounding was so quiet.  It’s possible that the cold has driven people away from being outside, but even still the place just felt out of place.

I suppose, though, that this comes from the fact that cities and places change inevitably.  It seems here, that part of the café is trying to remain or live up to what it once was, but it can’t because that was so very long ago.  What hasn’t seemed to change, though, is the fact that you can come, sit and read or write quite comfortably.  You cannot look out into the world in front of you, though, which I think was an important part of being a writer during Hemingway’s time.  When you sat at a café you were not confined to only looking within it and therefore your mind could wander elsewhere.

It seems that the vines growing on this café are trying to protect the memory of what this place used to be.  The area around the café has certainly allowed itself to change in the way the rest of the city has.  Because of this, the café just does not seem to be real in a sense, but maybe a nice fantasy.la Closerie des lilas

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