A Literary Cafe in Paris


Today La Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse is a far cry from the café where Ernest Hemingway wrote the first draft of ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ I had come expecting to find something comfortably modest and inexpensive, although ‘large enough for banquets or an occasional raucous demonstration.’

But the open terrace where Hemingway wrote in warm weather, nursing a café crème, with his pencils and blue-covered French notebooks, is now an elegant glassed-in restaurant hidden behind a hedge of shrubbery. It looks expensive and exclusive.

In the 1920s La Closerie des Lilas was a few blocks away from the more lively literary cafes of La Rotonde, Le Select and Le Dome. For this reason Hemingway wrote here when he didn’t want to be disturbed. He was later to say:

People from the Dome and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas. There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came.

We’d been warned about exorbitantly priced drinks and meals in Paris’s famous literary and artistic cafés as they cash in on their famous past. I remember all too well my kir at Les Deux Magots, the café made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The kir was double the price and half the strength that I could get from the Café Bonaparte on the next corner.

It’s in the nature of pilgrims to ignore all sound advice, and strike out in pursuit of the holy. We step inside La Closerie des Lilas.

The light is diffused. The bar is all mahogany panels, paintings, photographs and posters, dark wooden cafe tables and chairs along a red leather banquette. Behind the bar the shelves are mirrored and the bottles backlit. It’s hardly modest.

But because it’s our last day in Paris and because La Closerie de Lilas is so luxurious, and because Hemingway, whom I consider one of the best short story writers ever, wrote in this café, we lash out and buy two flutes of champagne.

As we wait I notice the brass name plaque on the table next to us. Edvard Munch. I point it out to my companion.

‘Aahhh!’ he screams with his hands against his cheeks.

Then I remember that each table in the bar carries the name of a famous client. I frantically search for the name plaque on our table. Let it be Ernest Hemingway. I find it in the opposite corner. With the low light and the gleam on the brass I can’t read it. I half stand up so I can see it properly.

Man Ray.
If there is anyone from the ‘Lost Generation’ whose work I admire as much as Ernest Hemingway, it is Man Ray. I fell in love with his photography years ago after seeing his photograph of Virginia Woolf in which he caught perfectly her mixture of vulnerability and sensitivity.

Virginia Woolf photo by Man Ray

Virginia Woolf
photo by Man Ray

To celebrate this amazing coincidence we order half a dozen oysters.

La Closerie des Lilas is such a charming place I’m suspicious of how much it has changed since Hemingway’s day. I’m sure the way downstairs to the toilets wouldn’t have looked like this.
toilet closerie

Despite the plaque, our table probably never knew Man Ray, and I’m paying through the nose for the experience.

But the champagne fizzes up my nose, the oysters taste of the sea, the staff is welcoming, and my heroes once drank here just as I am.

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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10 Responses to A Literary Cafe in Paris

  1. dianathrelfo says:

    Karen, there is something quite magical about being in the spot where those who have influenced or touched your life have long ago sojourned. Thanks once again for sharing the magic.

    • There is something magical about following in their footsteps, Di. That opens up a whole lot of other issues about what these pilgrimages actually mean to us. Perhaps a question for another blog…?

  2. suemasens65 says:

    I am in awe of your experience, your vivid descriptions and attention to detail along with wonderful photos makes me feel as though I am there too. So thanks for sharing and don’t underestimate the quality of your words.

  3. Maree Gallop says:

    What a fantastic experience! I was on the edge of my seat to see who had sat at your table. Thanks for taking me to Paris.

  4. suemasens65 says:

    Hi Karen, This is an amazing place but what a story are you still there and are you safe! if so write about it my thoughts are with you.

  5. How wonderful! And good for you for celebrating your experience. I did have a lovely hot chocolate in a smart cafe in Quimper while I was there last week. 😉

    I’m so relieved you are home now. We arrived in France on the Sunday morning after the attacks and the roads were eerily quiet. I have no words for what happened on the 13th.

    • I’m pleased to hear you weren’t there during the Paris attacks, Joanna. The empty streets must have seemed so eerie – I can’t even imagine it. I don’t know how to talk about the attacks either.
      A hot chocolate in Quimper! Delicious! You’ll be in reminiscent mode like me about now, I suspect.

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