Eighty years after establishing itself as a meeting place for expatriate writers and artists, Shakespeare & Company is still doing good business in the Lost Generation. Alternative vacationers arrive in droves at the famous bookstore, to take pictures by the iconic green storefront and buy slim volumes by Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Upstairs, writers’ groups meet weekly in rooms lined with old books, and guest poets give readings to interested crowds.
This was a good place to start what would become my own literary journey through Europe. About to finish a summer session course in Paris, I had vague plans to spend time in Spain with my boyfriend. Before I left, I visited the bookstore on a friend’s recommendation that I pick up a copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
The book follows expatriates drifting around Europe after World War I. Their path takes them from Paris to Pamplona during the running of the bulls. The characters — wounded, stoic veteran Jake Barnes; unhappy, promiscuous divorcée Brett Ashley — define the generation of expatriates that Gertrude Stein named the Lost Generation. But while psychological conditions make for a good story, I was seeking something more topical — dare I say, topographical?
As we would also be starting in Paris and moving into Spain, Hemingway could serve as our guidebook. Of course, any advice would be out of date by definition. Add to that the questionable moral and economic conditions of many protagonists, and it may be difficult to see the point in invoking a writer when in search of a good restaurant — especially if you want to avoid becoming an alcoholic or blowing your budget of now-severely-devalued American dollars. But even if we skimped on the feasts and booze, what the book could offer in terms of authenticity would surely more than make up for it.
And so, with no other direction, and no idea what we were getting ourselves into, we bought our tickets for the bus from Paris to Madrid. We would not be following Hemingway’s itinerary exactly; we were skipping over Pamplona and San Sebastian and the meatiest chapters to blaze straight into the last scenes in the capital. From a bus, however, Spain was still only an abstract concept, and even our descent into the country seemed rife with literary promise. This was the land of sunlight “hot and hard,” churches “cool and dim,” and everything surely louder and brighter than it is elsewhere.
As we drove farther south, I leafed again through the book and made what comparisons I could. While Jake had merely to show his passport and stroll across a bridge to get into Spain, we had to wait blearily in our seats at 1 a.m. as officials, first on the French side, then on the Spanish, did cross-checks on everyone’s documents. Somehow, the man behind us managed to go back to sleep — we could tell because he began snoring, as he would continue to do for the rest of the night. Jake did not get much sleep either as his train pulled into Madrid, but at least he was conscious enough to notice the “compact white skyline on the top of a little cliff away off across the sun-hardened country.” I closed my eyes against the sunrise that flooded the sky with golden light, regretting each jolt the bus made on its climb into the city.
Comparisons only became more complicated once we arrived in Madrid. Ready for some kind of “wonderful nightmare,” as Hemingway had described the fiesta and its long nights that ended as day broke, I was surprised to find restaurants stacking their chairs before midnight, the streets emptying soon after. During the days, we walked along streets and plazas whose names I recognized: Puerta del Sol, Carrera San Jeronimo. The doubled feeling of history in these places, both real and fictional, gave them a quality of super-reality, as if I could still feel the sustained attention of other minds in other times.
Elsewhere, the names of things remain maddeningly inaccessible. While Jake and his friends seemed to float effortlessly across language barriers, I could barely “talk Spanish.” My challenges were not the stuff of literature, but the banal impossibilities of asking for directions or buying metro tickets. While the young bullfighter Pedro Romero was facing down death in the arena, I could not figure out how to use the payphones. More than once, I found myself repeating Jake’s apt description that “in Spain you could not tell about anything.”
On our last night in Madrid, we had dinner in a place called El Sobrino de Botín. Founded in 1725, the restaurant proudly proclaims on its menu that it is the “Earliest Restaurant in the World (according to the Guinness Book of Records).” Hemingway provides its other major endorsement.
At the end of The Sun Also Rises, Jake and Brett reunite in Madrid to have lunch at Botín’s, “one of the best restaurants in the world,” Jake promises. They eat suckling pig — which remains the chief specialty — and admit that for all the circles they can turn in their lives, they will always end up in the same place. A bitter pill to swallow, perhaps, but at least at Botín’s one can wash it down with a glass of nice Rioja wine.
I split dessert with my boyfriend as costumed musicians played traditional Spanish songs. We were listing the things we had enjoyed most — the Prado Museum, the Plaza del Toros, Botín’s itself — and began to forget the things we had missed. The next morning, we lugged our bags down to the bus station. As we left the city, I looked out the window and passed the time with a good book.