GENIUSES TOGETHER American Writers in Paris In the 1920s

By Humphrey Carpenter Houghton Mifflin. 246 pp. $18.95

ANOTHER SONG about Paris," the songwriter David Frishberg has written, "is there room for one more?/ Is there really a note or a word we all haven't heard before?/ Is there one thing about Paris left to sing, left to say?" No, there isn't, and as Humphrey Carpenter inadvertently demonstrates in Geniuses Together, there's nothing left to write about Paris, either. Here for the umpteenth time we have the story of those writers and artists and parasites -- mostly the latter -- who emigrated from America to Paris after World War I. The story is smoothly and agreeably told, for Carpenter is an expert literary journalist, but after only a page or two the reader is left to wonder: Was this book really necessary?

The answer, you will not be surprised to hear, is: No. Although Carpenter has brought together a fair amount of material on the period -- he has also, quite inexplicably, left out a lot -- none of it is new and his organization of it leads to no interesting interpretations of the Montparnasse phenomenon. Unlike Carpenter's previous books, most notably his biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden, this one gives the impression of having been manufactured for the market, and perfunctorily manufactured at that; he plowed through much (but by no means all) of the existing material, extracted the juicier material from it, and pasted together what he calls "a collage of Left-Bank expatriate life as it was experienced by the Hemingway generation -- the Lost Generation, as Gertrude Stein named them in a famous remark to Hemingway."

That phrase, "the Hemingway generation," is important, for at the outset it establishes Carpenter's bias. He sees Paris in the '20s as essentially a cluster of small and unimportant planets orbiting around the blazing sun that was Hemingway, and he sees The Sun Also Rises as, in effect, the only durable literary relic of that time and place. This is not an unreasonable interpretation, but it leads Carpenter to slight certain other writers and artists and to omit some figures altogether.

Thus, for example, his discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald is limited almost entirely to Fitzgerald's influence on Hemingway's writing and Hemingway's contemptuous opinion of him. On the first matter, he comes up with the notion that The Great Gatsby "suggested to {Hemingway} that he could write a novel about the life he and his friends were leading at that moment," a notion for which I can find no evidence in any of Hemingway's letters or biographies -- unless one takes seriously his remark in a letter to Fitzgerald that in The Sun Also Rises "I have tried to follow the outline and spirit of the Great Gatsby but feel I have failed somewhat because of never having been on Long Island," a remark that clearly was intended to be taken as a joke.

As to Hemingway's opinion of Fitzgerald, it was summarized in his well-known observation, published in A Moveable Feast: "He had . . . a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty . . . . The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more." Carpenter quotes this description without comment, yet as Kenneth Lynn and other biographers have pointed out, there is comment aplenty to be made about it, especially as it reflects upon Hemingway's own complex and probably androgynous sexuality. Here as elsewhere, Carpenter too readily accepts Hemingway's oversimplified view of a situation that was in fact multifarious and ambiguous.

This Hemingway-centered perspective also leads to some odd oversights and omissions. Though Carpenter produces all the usual business about Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce, not to mention Shakespeare and Company and Les Deux Magots and transatlantic review, he passes over Harry and Caresse Crosby in a paragraph and has not a word to say about Gerald and Sara Murphy. None of these four was a figure of lasting importance, to be sure, but all most emphatically were literary Americans in Paris, and that ostensibly is what this book is about. The Crosbys not merely were emblematic figures, as Carpenter notes parenthetically, but their Black Sun Press published work of some importance. As for the Murphys, their role in the expatriate world was that of friends and patrons to writers and artists, and they filled that role with considerable effectiveness; their utter absence from this chronicle does nothing to bolster its authority.

Otherwise, Geniuses Together nimbly retraces well-worn ground. Carpenter accurately describes the sense among American intellectuals after the war "that Americans were beginning to feel themselves trapped in a shallow and materialistic society," a sense that led them "to turn towards Europe, the land that seemed to them to offer a true sense of liberation." He understands that life in Montparnasse was more play than work, and his accounts of gatherings at bistros and cafes manage to suggest the rather frenetic and self-indulgent mood of the time. Most important, he is right to observe that Montparnasse really had little to do with the emergence of the new American literature in the '20s and '30s -- that Faulkner, Wolfe and Steinbeck, among others, went virtually untouched by the gay doings on the Left Bank.

So by way of conclusion Carpenter has this to say: "The geniuses had mostly turned out not to be geniuses after all. Yet they had been geniuses at being together, drinking together, sleeping together, and quarreling together; and that was something worth remembering." Perhaps so, but we really do not need yet another book about Paris in order to jog our memories. As Frishberg put it, "It's all been said about Paris -- let it lie, let it be!"