“There is nothing deader than a dead tiger and Georges Clemenceau was a very great tiger. Therefore Georges Clemenceau is very dead.” So begins an article of 18th February 1922 in the Toronto Star, written by a young Ernest Hemingway, its Paris correspondent.
Hemingway’s missives from the post-war western front have been collected for a recent Hesperus Press edition and are among his earliest published writings. Aficionados will recognise the nascent pith and verve of his writing, but these articles represent so much more than the baby steps of a future literary giant; they are the remnants of a lost generation of foreign reporting.
Today’s newspapers must chase a shrinking market, and often paint a picture of the world that (they assume) might fascinate a modern consumer. The grim reality of faraway lands is represented through statistics of suffering, or humanised to appeal to the pathos of a distant domestic audience.
Worse still, such emotive content is frequently balanced by trivial vignettes of celebrity gossip and reality TV found in supposedly more familiar western cultures. Sunday newspapers present a weekly digest of selected world events, dictated by our current curiosities; we are so rarely asked to understand a foreign culture, merely to know about it.
By digging below the statistical and the salacious, Hemingway came to understand. His articles paint a vivid panorama of life in 1920s Paris. Whereas today’s media is cripplingly averse to characterisation, Hemingway tells us how “the extreme provinciality of the French people” and “the gullibility of the French press” made Paris “the mecca of bluffers and fakers in every line of endeavour.” We learn that “the scum of Greenwich village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited” at the Café Rotonde; of how French wives buy their clothes for their husbands; of Parisian boorishness, wild nightlife and “homes on the Seine”.
Yet Hemingway managed to be at once entertaining and informative. The gargoyles of Notre Dame, placed in position by Napoleon the Third before the Franco-Prussian war, “belong to modern history”, says Hemingway, “and the commencement of French hatred towards the eastern neighbour.” A trip to his wartime posting in Trentino reveals the detached desolation that was so prevalent in post-war Europe. The reconstructed town he finds, so typical of 1920s Europe, represents not “the great sacrifice” but rather “the new, ugly futility of it all”: “Everything is just as it was – except a little worse.”
Perhaps the perception of even a young Hemingway is too much to ask of our modern broadsheets. And perhaps it is futile to lament the passing of an age when consumers had the patience, and producers the funds, for such singular nuance. One fears, though, that Hemingway’s is a lost art of journalism, at odds with contemporary coverage of international affairs that describes rather than explains; that panders to the fleeting attention of the fickle reader; that struggles to transcend the existing cultural, commercial or geopolitical interests of its domestic audience.
In his attempt to explain the atrophy of “the very great tiger” as a political figure, the intrepid reporter described his method:
If you catch a Frenchman when he has been in the café just long enough to come to a boil, and before he has begun to boil over and spill on the stove, you find out what he really thinks about Clemenceau or anything else. And if you catch enough Frenchmen in different parts of France, you will have the national opinion; the real national opinion, not the shadow of national opinion that is reflected in elections and newspapers.
In today’s world, it is as important as ever that cultures understand each other. Our newspapers would do well to heed Hemingway’s advice.
“On Paris” is published by Hesperus Press (£7.99)