Paris Metro by Carl D. Malmgren

Although at the start of the book this does not appear to be a wholly original work, as numerous fictionalizations of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been attempted, when mid-way through the book murder strikes the Paris art scene of the 1920s, it quickly becomes an intriguing new perspective on these American writers’ lifestyles. The murder of a black man named Peterson in a hotel room in 1925 is well-documented in historical texts, but never has the crime been solved or used in a fictional context, though Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and their compatriots were involved. The use of this true-to-life incident is not the only aspect that makes this picaresque novel unique, however; the literary techniques employed are reminiscent of the writers into whose lives it delves.

The story begins when journalist Nick Edwards arrives in Paris in May of 1925, planning on writing an article about the lives of the expatriates there. The first person he meets, by coincidence, is Ernest Hemingway, who quickly brings him into what he calls the “writing fraternity.” Almost immediately, Nick is thrust into the art scene, meeting characters including, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Dick and Nicole Diver, Pauline Pfeiffer, and numerous others. From thereon in, the novel is almost strictly dialogue, which—though the lack of description may leave some readers wanting—is witty, honest, and effective in developing the characters.

The macro setting—Paris in 1925—is apparent; the culture and vernacular of the time and place are distinct. However, the micro settings from scene to scene are often ambiguous. Most scenes take place in a café or at a party, but these are the only qualifiers. Even the characters are not described in much detail, unless their appearance is uniquely notable, like Pauline Pfeiffer, for example, who, as a fashion writer, wears a fur coat and a silk shirt that accentuates her beautiful figure.

While during the first third of the book the reader may wish for more in the area of description and action, and perhaps less in dialogue, it is only a matter of time before they get swept up in the glamor and magic of 1920s Paris, much like Nick Edwards does. He begins uncertain, insecure, and curious, but before he knows it, he has abandoned his project and moved on to writing his own novel, mingling with the expatriates and becoming one himself.

The book on many occasions seems to be describing itself, in particular one paragraph: “But it would also have the shortcomings of the picaresque—a series of colorful scenes and short encounters connected only by the picaro, the vagabond protagonist. In simple terms, Nick’s story lacked a plot.” This self-referential exposition is not distracting—in fact it is intriguing—and resolves itself at the end of the book when we see it is “Signed, N. Edwards, Paris, 1927.” While Nick Edwards is altogether a fictional character, his interactions with these famous historical figures, his and their dialogue matching in quality, quantity, and lyricism, he seems as real as they do.

If one were to analyze this novel with a critical literary eye, one would see numerous shortcomings, including the complete lack of description of setting—Malmgren simply states “He found himself in Paris,” and offers no further backdrop for the dialogue—but even with a strict and expecting view, the pages of this book simply melt away as the reader becomes absorbed with the beautifully developed characters—developed solely through the medium of dialogue—and the thought processes of expatriate artists and rogues. Malmgren follows the advice of Hemingway as embedded within the book itself: “the same goes for words in a piece of fiction. Some few are there to work and the rest are mere decoration. I try to strip away the merely decorative, the inessential from my prose. And then I take it one step further—by slicing into what some people would think belong to the essential: names, background info, even to the point of contention… Like the character, the reader lives the experience.”

In theory, the literary techniques used in this book are risky to the point of making a writer seem foolish to approach them, but Malmgren succeeds flawlessly in adopting and meshing the writing styles of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Obviously well-researched, Paris Metro is a truly absorbing read that keeps the reader gripped and perched on the edge of their seat, even if there is no action. The action essentially is the non-action; the purpose of this novel is to reveal the context of the works published in the era: the utterly self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, and roguish behaviors of these writers that produced these works we today call great. Not only does this book paint a distinct picture of time and place, but it also reveals the secrets of the minimalist writing technique both in plainly describing it and in using it effectively. Writers, history buffs, and those interested in the art scene of 1920s Paris will enjoy this book.