For most of the week I have been in Paris, a city that I have traveled to regularly since 1971. Back then, communications to the US was dismal and a letter sent from here could take 2 weeks to get home. In fact, General Charles De Gaulle was still ruling when I first came to Paris and he was not a big fan of telecommunications. Consequently, the French phone systems were antiquated and in need of serious attention.
But about 7 years after his death and with new open minded rulers now in charge, France actually leap frogged much of Europe when they introduced the Minitel systems, which was really the first in home computer terminals that connected to a broad range of services. In fact, from its early days, users could make online purchases, make train reservations, check stock prices, search the telephone directory, have a mailbox, and chat in a similar way to that now made possible by the Internet.
Over the years, communications in France, and much of Europe, has come a long way and today just about everybody here has a cell phone. And interestingly, pretty much every tourist I have run into is snapping pictures on their smartphones. It seems that cell phones and smart phones have almost replaced the local phone and the need for a MiniTel system is long gone thanks to the Internet. A side note to this is the amount of iPhones I have seen in use. On Saturday as I road the Metro or subway to a street market, there were 12 people in the subway car I was on using an iPhone. And while I saw a stray Blackberry or even a Nokia phone once in awhile, iPhones seem to be everywhere.
If you have been to Paris, you know that this is a city with a very rich history and reminders of this are all around. From the Eiffel Tower, to the Arc De Triumph to the century old paintings lining the walls of the Louvre. Next to Rome and Athens, Paris is perhaps the richest city when it comes to historic landmarks. But there is one part of Paris’ history that is of real interest to anyone serious about literature and that is the time when many expats moved to Paris to find inspiration and freedom of expression in the 1920’s. And while there were a lot of artists and sculptors in Paris during this time, it is the writers of this period that interests me the most.
As I write this column, I am in a café called Les Deux Magots at about the same spot Ernest Hemingway use to sit and write during the early 1920’s. I can almost see him leaning over his pad of paper, writing furiously as he sat there day after day for hours at a time writing out his masterpieces in long hand. At that time, Hemingway was in Paris representing a Canadian newspaper and writing on the side, so-to-speak. At this time he was introduced to Gertrude Stein and Ms. Stein referred to Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound and others such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro as the “Lost Generation”.
But in those days, the process of getting any of Hemingway’s works accepted, approved, edited and often rewritten took a great deal of time. There was limited air postal service and the telegraph was only used for short news items. As I sit here writing this column, I can’t help but think of how different it might have been for Hemingway and the great literary minds of those days, who have had so much influence on our literature today, if they had the tools of our modern era.
In fact, I am writing this on an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard and when I send this off it will go over the Internet and to our editors in mere seconds. This got me to wondering if Hemingway had these tools available to him if he would have used an iPad? Or for that matter, would he have used a laptop or PC? He had a typewriter at his disposal but history reports that a lot of his writing was done in long hand.
Even today, I sometimes run in to writers who still use paper and pen, although they are a rare-breed these days. Most writers now use a laptop or desktop with a good word processor and use the Internet to send their work to editors instantly. Now, getting a response about a writers work could come to them in hours or days instead of the months it took in Hemingway’s era.
Of course, this is an empty exercise since most writers of that day used the modern day tools of their time, which in most cases was with pen and paper and typewriters if they were stationary. But in doing research about that period of time, even with typewriters available, I found that some writers thought them to be too new fangled and stayed with their most comfortable form of writing, which was with pen and paper. Hemingway typed when at his office but used pen and paper when in café’s, parks and anytime he was away from his tiny office.
But I can’t help wondering what other great works of literature Hemingway and his writer colleagues of that time would have given us if they had the tools of today at their disposal. What if Hemingway could have penned more novels during his era if he had the advanced tools of our time? Perhaps we would have the dozens of manuscripts he had written that were in a suitcase that his wife lost at Gare De Lyon when she was coming back to Paris from Geneva to meet him in 1922. If they had been in digital form and backed up, we may today be reading dozens of other works by him to enrich our literary life.
In Woody Allen’s fascinating movie “Midnight in Paris” he examines the idea of people of one age romanticizing about a different age of the past and wanting to go back and discover what it would be like to live during that time. But time travel in reverse is not my cup of tea. Rather, I love the age of technology and instant communications, not to mention the improved healthcare of our time. But if I could go back in time I would like to hand Hemingway an iPad and see if he would use it to create new literary masterpieces. Now that would be a picture worth a thousand words and perhaps we could prevail on Picasso to paint it!