Hemingway lives near a café called the Closerie des Lilas, which is one of the nicest cafés in Paris. In the winter it is warm inside, and in the spring it is pleasant to sit outside at the outdoor tables. Hemingway is “good friends” with two of the waiters. The café used to attract many poets, but Hemingway has seen only one poet there, Blaise Cendrars, who has one arm and whose company Hemingway enjoys until Cendrars drinks too much. Most of the customers in the café know each other, and Hemingway suspects that they are scientists and professors. He notes that they make the café pleasant because they are “all interested in each other and in their drinks or coffees.” There are also war veterans in the café, many of whom are mutilated; Hemingway respects them more than the scholars. Hemingway notes that, at that time, he doesn’t trust anyone fully and certainly not anyone who hadn’t been in the war. Yet he also thinks that Cendrars should be less “flashy” with his missing arm.
Hemingway is at home among several distinct groups of people, but perhaps not fully at home among any one of them. He clearly feels a sense of affinity with other writers, other veterans, and even, to some extent, with the professors who frequent the Closerie des Lilas. However, he is also different from each of these groups; unlike the older generation of writers, he served in the war, and unlike many of the veterans, he is not “washed up” and has no visible injuries. However, there are also similarities between Hemingway and these other characters that he fails to note in the text. For example, he points out that Cendrars drinks too much, while failing to mention that he does the same.
One evening, Hemingway is sitting outside the Closerie when Ford Madox Ford comes over and asks to sit with him. Ford remarks, “I spent good years of my life that those beasts should be slaughtered humanely,” and Hemingway replies that he has already told him this. Ford denies that he has ever told anyone, and orders a Chambéry Cassis, before changing his mind to a fine à l’eau. Hemingway usually tries to avoid Ford and he always holds his breath to avoid smelling him, but he finds that it is alright to sit near him here in the open air. Ford chastises Hemingway for being “glum” and tells him he needs to “get out more.” Ford invites Hemingway and Hadley to a gathering at the Bal Musette, and Hemingway tells him that they used to live above it. Ford then calls over the waiter and informs him that he brought the wrong drink, although this is not true—Ford forgot that he changed his mind. Hemingway says he will take Ford’s drink. Ford continues to speak in a nonsensical way, and Hemingway notes that he seems “thoroughly and completely happy.”
Ford is an older and more established writer than Hemingway, but he is also clearly more troubled. He seems to easily become confused and forgetful, and much of what he says to Hemingway doesn’t make much sense. Furthermore, he also smells bad—a detail that indicates that he may have a drinking problem or that he perhaps doesn’t wash himself. Hemingway doesn’t describe Ford in terms that are directly insulting, but he doesn’t present a particularly flattering view of him either. Hemingway’s relationship with Ford reflects Hemingway’s general sense of unease with the older generation, other writers, and the legacy of the war. While Ford suffered mental health problems prior to the war, many veterans developed PTSD that caused them to behave in an erratic manner.
Ford asks Hemingway why he is drinking brandy, warning him that brandy can be “fatal for a young writer.” Hemingway recalls that Ezra Pound told him that he must never be rude to Ford, and that Ford’s strange behavior was due to “very bad domestic troubles.” It is difficult for Hemingway to reconcile Ford’s actual presence with his knowledge that Ford is an important writer. Hemingway asks “why one cuts people,” and Ford replies that “a gentleman always cuts a cad.” The two discuss who qualifies as a gentleman or a cad, reciting the names of famous writers. Ford asserts that he himself is a gentleman but that Hemingway certainly isn’t. He adds that Hemingway is “a very promising young writer.” They continue to discuss different writers, and Ford orders a brandy before leaving. After Ford goes, a friend of Hemingway’s arrives and Hemingway claims that another man in the café is Belloc. However, the friend replies that it is not Belloc, but rather Alestair Crowley, a diabolist and “the wickedest man in the world.”
Ford is a remarkably different figure from Gertrude Stein: Stein exerts a powerful and disciplined presence, while Ford seems vulnerable and erratic. Both writers, however, give Hemingway advice that is difficult to decode, that appears hypocritical, and that is perhaps deliberately irrational. Note that at the time at which this scene is set, many reacted to the First World War by rejecting rationality on the basis that it was scientific rationalism that led to the enormous death and destruction caused by the war. Others felt that the world was simply a fundamentally irrational, unjust, and chaotic place. These views seem to be reflected in the character of Ford and others at the café, such as the “diabolist” Crowley.