Agnès Poirier’s scintillating new book, Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-50, focuses on an extraordinary decade in Paris’s cultural and intellectual history. Poirier, who will be familiar to readers who follow her regular articles for the British Guardian website and newspaper, starts her account shortly before the German invasion of Paris and ends it in the financially difficult but artistically exhilarating years that followed the end of World War II.
The visceral excitement of the age, dominated by such figures as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, is conveyed well by Poirier’s high-octane approach: within single paragraphs, we find ourselves speeding between multiple viewpoints and different life stories – for those not already familiar with the major personalities of the time, the “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the book will be both necessary and invaluable.
While sometimes a sense of the broader picture or the chance for more sustained analysis is lost in the process, Poirier manages to retell familiar stories in vividly interesting new ways (such as the tale of how the director of the Louvre Museum, Jacques Jaujard, managed to spirit away and hide all of the Louvre’s masterpieces in various locations in the French countryside before the German occupation of Paris, or the shared euphoria at the liberation of Paris), and direct contact with the singer Juliette Greco has enabled her to recount some stories with added authority.
Most importantly, the book brings to the fore figures who have been unjustly sidelined. Alongside all the well-known existentialist thinkers, for example, it was fascinating to read about many interesting women of the day, not least the archivist and writer Édith Thomas and her sometime lover, the writer Dominique Aury, or the bookseller and publisher Adrienne Monnier, whose own bookshop was located opposite Shakespeare & Company, the iconic bookstore owned by her lover, Sylvia Beach. Janet Flanner, the American Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, whose reports on Paris life are quoted frequently, plays a particularly prominent role in the book.
As the examples of Flanner and Beach show, American visitors to and residents of Paris are constant presences in the book. I learned a great deal about the black writer Richard Wright, who felt much more at home in Paris than in his native United States, and I must admit that I had no idea that Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow had spent quite so much time in the city.
Given the unflattering light in which Sartre and Beauvoir have been portrayed in recent critical studies, Poirier gives the two a surprisingly easy ride. In many ways, it is refreshing to find such an uncynical approach, but it might have been more instructive if she had pointed out the irony of Sartre wishing to divest himself of all bourgeois possessions while at the same time moving in with his mother and happily being served by the family maid.
It might also be added that, for all the free love the couple advocated, their approach was not without its victims and was probably driven by an alpha-male heterosexual agenda: in their immediate circles, it is extraordinary how many women were encouraged to explore their bisexuality while the men remained resolutely heterosexual. The prominent male figures of the time who were gay, like Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet, never really belonged to the existentialist côterie.
Overall, however, there is much to admire in this lively retelling of the story of an age that makes today’s Paris seem rather less compelling by comparison.