Issue 6, Summer 1954
The Café du Dôme de Montparnasse was exactly like that; no American who was trying to be a writer in Paris in the 1920s could fail to recognize the truth of Nathan Asch’s picture. Asch himself belonged to a somewhat later group than mine; he was one of the young men, mostly Midwesterners—though he was an exception, having been born in Poland and educated at Syracuse University—who gathered round that remarkable magazine edited by Ford Madox Ford, the Transatlantic Review. Later he wrote a number of novels, beginning with The Office, that were well received by the critics and had a larger sale in Germany than in the United States; the Germans before Hitler thought that he was a better novelist than his father, Sholem Asch. The Second World War put a temporary stop to his career as a writer. Though overage he enlisted in the Air Force, and though assigned to Public Relations, he flew several combat missions over Germany; he wrote some wonderful letters about his experiences, but didn’t publish a word. That was a grave tactical error. When he got home and started writing again, he found that editors and publishers had forgotten his name, and his postwar work—which includes three novels and many stories—has largely remained in manuscript. Some of this unpublished work is extremely good, though it isn’t fashionable. This picture of a day at the Dôme is a section of a novel, Paris Was Home. Hemingway, who might or might not be recognized as one of the characters in the section, read the novel and had some objections not connected with his own appearance or nonappearance in it. But he also said, “…when Nathan writes about the Dôme at the end and when life was exciting and truly remembered because he was fighting then to be a writer ... it is absolutely first rate.” It is.
On the corner made by the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail and the rue Delambre, across the street from the large and garish Café de la Rotonde, during those earlier days, was the then smaller place called the Café du Dôme. The Rotonde had new soft benches and polished tables. On the walls it had paintings of nudes, and still-lives of fruit and flowers, and landscapes of Brittany and the south of France. It had a fancy, spacious washroom with a woman in charge. The Dôme was smokestained and gloomy, and beyond the bar the seating part was circular and on different levels, so that if you were looking for somebody, you went up steps and around, glancing at both sides—in the daytime so little light came through that you almost had to lean over a table, peering, to recognize someone—and then down the steps and you were back at the bar. The toilet was down a deep stairs, and at the bottom there were two doors. The Men’s part was a narrow square where above a hole in the floor stood out two raised foot soles. You carefully stepped on those, twisted around, let your pants down. For toilet paper you used cut-out leaves of the city directory.
The Dôme used to open at five-thirty in the morning. The bakery truck came, and a tray of crescent rolls was set on the counter, to surprise one with still-warmth when one took one to dip into the coffee. Outside in the street light stood a row of all night taxis, their meters covered, and inside, the chauffeurs fortified themselves for the ride home. Their voices were night-air-laden, and when an early worker came in to call out in a just-waked-up voice, “Good day,” they slowly turned their heads and did not answer. Beer pipes were being iced, racks of wine brought up, red wine and white wine and mineral water set for quick use under the counter. Even at this early hour some had a shot of wine mixed with mineral water for their breakfast. If it was his early shift, César came in, in a worn black suit, stiff shirt and stained derby hat, stood at the counter for his coffee like anybody else, lifted the glass with shirking fingers and sipped carefully; then without his hat and jacket, polished bald head reflecting the light, and his stiff shirt but a dickey, went inside to sweep and mop. A party of all night revelers arrived, filled the Dôme with un-morning-like laughter, called for drinks. When the angry César brought them, they did not drink, but their voices becoming languid and forced, ordered breakfast instead, did not eat it, sat in more silence, aware of César’s exasperated banging around them, tired in the midst of the brisk morning. The dawn was greying the street outside, dimming the lights inside. The taxis had gone. At the counter stood clerks from neighborhood stores, concierges from nearby buildings, railroad men from the Montparnasse station, postmen, housewives, models, hardly dressed, hardly awake. A meticulously dressed gentleman arrived, sat down with his back toward the window, placed his folded newspaper at the exact center of the table, waited while César tied on an apron, put on a very worn black jacket; and a napkin on his arm, shuffled to the counter to push through the crowd, brought the coffee pot and the pitcher of hot milk.