The Rest Is Noise festival is about to focus on this thrilling artistic era. I'd like to go, but I'd rather time-travel to the city as it was then
The Rest is Noise, the investigation of the culture of the 20th century at London's Southbank Centre, continues this weekend with a trip to 1920s Paris. And is there anywhere you would rather be?
To put the question another way: Has there ever been a greater concentration of literary talent and output in one time and place? By 1922, the city had already seen Proust write the last words he would manage for A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, James Joyce finishing and publishing Ulysses, Ezra Pound polishing drafts of The Waste Land while working on his own Cantos. Meanwhile, a young war veteran called Ernest Hemingway had arrived in town, met Gertrude Stein and started writing In Our Time (the best collection of short stories ever. Fact!). He'd also started forming the memories he would set down with such eloquence in A Moveable Feast. Soon Hemingway would also meet Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, Scott and Zelda Firtzgerald. Not too long afterwards, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin would burst into town. William Faulkner would come on another boat. Sherwood Anderson had already visited. As had Djuana Barnes. Lawrence Durrell would be there soon …
If that roster of names isn't enough, bear in mind that his was also the high water mark of surrealism, and of Dada and other modernisms – and a great deal of it was happening in Paris. Viewed through the reverse telescope of history it seems like an extraordinary place to be. Woody Allen had it dead right in Midnight in Paris. How could a scenario involving being transported back there be anything other than fun? I know where I'd go if I had a time machine and only one trip allowed. Naturally, I'd seriously think about San Francisco in the 1960s, Ancient Athens, and Rome at the time of Augustus. I'd also be quite tempted by the dinosaurs. But if you threw an invitation to Gertrude Stein's apartment and introduction to Hemingway, it would be hard to say no to the French capital in the 20s.
But of course, getting to know Gertrude and Ernest would depend on knowledge, good fortune, privilege and talent. It must have been mighty exciting to be Hemingway himself – but what of the average Parisian? While the talks this weekend about the American invasion, surrealism, Proust and Dada sound fascinating, the one I'm possibly most interested to see will be cultural historian Andrew Hussey's talk on "The People's City", looking at life for the less artistically inclined or fortunate inhabitants of the city. All those Americans arrived in town on the back of an unusually strong dollar, cheap rents and cheap food. Because, in other words, life was hard for the the average Parisian.
It's also worth remembering that so many of those Americans, not to mention the British and French in town, were damaged. If they drank and partied more than most, it was because they had more to forget. This was a city still in the shadow of the first world war. The generation that we imagine having so much fun were seen by Gertrude Stein as "lost". Many of them had served in the war – all of them must have known someone it had destroyed. Hemingway's sharp, angry short stories and A Farewell to Arms, The Waste Land, Tender Is the Night, Manhattan Transfer. These are masterpieces. But they are not the products of happy minds. Les années folles contained as much tragedy as fun. I'd still like to visit. But only on a return ticket …
Guardian Extra members can win the weekend of a lifetime at Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise Festival. Find out more at guardian.co.uk/extra