The timeless, inspirational allure of literary cities
Alone in Paris, I sat in a Laduree tearoom, before me a fragrant rose tea and an “Ispahan,” a dreamy confectionary made of rose-flavored macarons with cream, fresh raspberries and lychees. A book on French gardens is propped open and my wide smile is as rapturous as the pastry cherubs adorning the salon’s paintings. As I study my itinerary for the upcoming days, I feel like a heroine in a storybook, beaming at the prospect of encountering a chic mix of museums, gardens, cafes, and neighborhoods rich in literary history.
Much of my fascination with Paris arises from its ability to fuse the surreal with the real. It is no wonder, then, that many writers flock to cities that embrace their creative spirits, while at the same time fostering vibrant artistic circles and communities. You can only begin to understand such nuances when you delve into writers’ memoirs and accompany them on their creative journeys. One memoir that particularly captivates me is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” Hemingway’s words feel like animated pictures of beautiful renditions, conversations, and stories on the charms of 1920s Paris, his writing assignments, his friendships with fellow authors, and his favorite writing spots around the city.
At the time, literary cafes were the modern, public salons hosting many luminaries. Writers were seen penning their now-renowned works or conversing with other intellectuals. Cafes such as Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore regularly hosted artists, writers and intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Camus. In his memoir, Hemingway fondly recalls a particular restaurant, La Closerie des Lilas, where he wrote and where American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald gave him a manuscript of “The Great Gatsby” for his critique. Hemingway later told a friend: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Writers in 1920s Paris also frequented independent bookshops, such as Shakespeare and Company, founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919. The store attracted many French and expatriate writers, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence. Interestingly, Beach published James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which would become a work of epic literary significance. Writers’ works often found their way to theaters and the works of famous playwrights such as Moliere, Jean Racine, and Victor Hugo have been celebrated onstage at many of the gorgeous theaters of Paris. La Comedie-Francaise, France’s national theater and the world’s longest-established national theater, provided a grand setting for literary works to come to life.
To be bewitched by a city with a rich literary heritage is an elevated human experience.
Other cities are also vying to be crowned with similar literary gems. In 2004, Edinburgh was given the title of being the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. This picturesque city is said to have inspired more than 500 novels and has been home to many famous writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), Robert Louis Stevenson (author of “Treasure Island” and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), and J.M. Barrie (who created Peter Pan). In modern times, the city is attracting visitors from all round the world thanks to its network of bookstores, cafes, writing workshops, reading events, and writers’ museums. The annual Edinburgh International Book Festival is the largest literary gathering in the world, bringing together more than 1,000 writers to discuss important themes in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature. The city has also provided inspiration for writers. For example, J.K. Rowling penned the early books of the Harry Potter series in the city’s popular cafes, including The Elephant House, and was inspired by the city’s architecture, cobbled streets, and public spaces.
Meanwhile, countries are luring visitors with creative literary activities. For example, Book and Bed is a hostel in Tokyo that is designed within a bookshop setting. Rooms are nestled between shelves containing 1,700 books written in Japanese and English. Gorgeous bookstores and historical libraries have also become tourist destinations, attracting many to places such as the majestic theater-turned-bookstore El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, the striking neo-Renaissance George Peabody Library in Baltimore, US, which contains more than 300,000 volumes, and the Czech Republic’s Klementinum National Library, which is dubbed “the Baroque pearl of Prague.”
To be bewitched by a city with a rich literary heritage is an elevated human experience. For a bibliophile to savor the literary journey of seeing the very places that sparked ideas for timeless works of literature; to witness the struggles writers endured to give birth to transformative ideas; and to walk along the specific contours of a city that fictitious characters ambled is deeply sentimental.
Simply said, literary cities are captivating. Their charms go beyond the material world; they plunge into our psyches and fill us with ideas, inspiration and strength — much like the heroic characters in their novels.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted via www.amorelicious.com.