PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

'Left Bank' Explores Ideas, Art and Passion in the City of Light

The artists and writers of Paris' Left Bank brought scandal and controversy in their time. In so doing they shaped the artistic and intellectual milieu of the modern world.

Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50
Agnes Poirier

Henry Holt & Co.

Feb 2018

Other

If Paris became a capital of global culture in the second half of the 20th century, it was well-deserved and long overdue. The tumultuous decades following the French Revolution were fraught enough, but Napoleon's disastrous adventures, siege and defeat by Prussians in the 1870-71 war, the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune that same year, a renewed pummelling at the front line of the First World War, and then defeat and occupation by Nazis in the Second World War, meant she was long overdue for a well-deserved renascence.

The Second World War deeply shaped the young (and not so young) minds that were to bring Paris back to the forefront of creative ideas. Many of the budding writers and artists who showed talent before the war played roles in the resistance against the Nazis. Others collaborated, while yet others buried their heads in the sand. What united them was the fact they were all forced to face the question of how to respond to Nazi occupation: give up and collaborate? Flee and live in exile? Go underground and risk life and limb to fight back? Whatever their choices, after the war those who survived would come bounding back with a renewed determination to live and to give their lives meaning.

Agnes Poirier's Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 is a riveting, rollicking read through the explosive intellectualism and labyrinthine love affairs of many of the key writers, philosophers and artists of this decade that came to define Paris and the Left Bank. The book is centred around Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the couple whose transcendent partnership -- intellectual, romantic, political -- forms the fulcrum of this telling. Around them gathered an expansive array of fascinating, complex characters -- Picasso, Janet Flanner, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Juliette Greco, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Edith Thomas, to name just a few. Some were French; others were ex-pats from before the war; many were American GI's who fell in love with the city and returned under generous post-war educational programs.

What drew them to the City of Light?

What "many young foreign artists and writers in Paris discovered was style as life: a way of living, a way of writing, a way of looking at things, and a cultural curiosity and appetite that was not academic… French style was not so much a matter of pleasure, but something more enduring," Poirier explains. She quotes American novelist James Salter, who found that what Paris provided was "not the lessons of school but a view of existence: how to have leisure, love, food, and conversation, how to look at nakedness, architecture, streets, all new and seeking to be thought of in a different way."

This "view of existence"; this "style as life", was important. What Poirier's book provides is not a history of Left Bank thought but of its style -- its way of looking at life and love and one's place in a world undergoing profound changes. She illustrates skillfully the attitude, sense, paradigm of these artists and writers, and places it within its larger context. While packed with detail, it's not an in-depth study, given the broad net she casts. A deeper study of how France and the world responded to the Left Bank would be most interesting. Poirier instead focuses on conveying to the reader a sense of how these artists lived their lives.

Of especial interest is her discussion of the complicated decisions these writers and artists had to make during the period of Nazi occupation of France. Some collaborated with the occupation, either out of shared convictions (anti-Semitism) or simply in order to keep writing and acting. Others went underground. Many had to engage in a certain level of moral ambiguity: appearing to collaborate by day, while also secretly participating in resistance groups by night. Illegal, underground resistance pamphlets and newspapers were produced on the printing machines of collaborationist journals. Individuals made complex choices as well: the famous French actress Arletty starred in subversive, resistance-themed films while also engaging in romantic affairs with high-profile Nazis. Briefly arrested by the Resistance after Paris was liberated, she allegedly spat back at her interrogators: "My heart belongs to France but my arse is international!"

Others maintained friendly public relations with Nazis and collaborators in order to use those connections to protect friends and family. Even some German soldiers seemed ambivalent about their role, protecting French resistance fighters, warning French colleagues when the Gestapo were en route to arrest them, and writing honest personal reflections critical of war, which were banned by the Nazi command. The famous French publishing house Gallimard published collaborationist and fascist works, but channeled this credibility with the occupying regime to also publish the vaguely subversive texts which would fuel the post-war intellectual explosion. A resistance cell ran off pamphlets from its offices as well. There was no single, easy way to respond to the complex moral demands made by the war and the occupation, and Poirier does an excellent job of illustrating the complex problems posed by the times.

What this state of extended moral ambiguity led to was a profound explosion in philosophy and literary arts, both during and after the war, as the creatives of the Left Bank channeled their confusion and convictions into novels, plays, films and art.

Poirier weaves a fine line between lives and ideas. She discusses the philosophy and ideas which inspire her characters, but dwells equally on the torrid romances which defined their personal lives. While the book offers fairly cursory sketches of many of the characters, some become more intimate to the reader than others. The lesbian relationship of Edith Thomas and Dominique Aury (a pseudonym for Anne Cécile Desclos) is tenderly presented. De Beauvoir is central enough a character that she comes to feel personal and familiar to the reader. The romantic affairs of Albert Camus and his neglect of his wife assume a prominent presence. The violent misogyny of at least one of the era's intellectual geniuses, Arthur Koestler, is conveyed to the reader, but that of other characters is glossed over. A decade of free love and artful affairs may sound romantic in small doses, but closer scrutiny would undoubtedly unmask the misogyny and violent neglect on which so many male geniuses constructed their relationships and their reputations during this era.

What is this, then? It's not a cultural history, per se -- that would go deeper and consider the Left Bank within its broader French cultural context. It's not a philosophical or literary history -- Poirier does discuss, briefly, the contributions of various works to their respective disciplines, but that's not really the point here. Nor is it literary biography -- we see but a snapshot of these colourful characters' lives. It's not even history -- broad and profound events are glossed over quickly (the campaign against Sartre by the Catholic Church would have been fascinating to read in more depth).

The book could no doubt be criticized by those wanting it to be something else, but Poirier's success lies in not trying to make the book other than what it is: an empathic insight, a shared space with the remarkably talented characters that inhabit the narrative. Where the book succeeds exceptionally is in conveying a history of the Left Bank artistic-intellectual style, as Salter defines it above, imparting to the reader a real feel for what it was like to live, breathe and love art and literature and politics and life in the city, particularly for the creative and intellectual class. It was a very different class than we usually associate with literature -- the World War and reconstruction policies had made creatives and intellectuals out of all sorts of characters, from former French thieves to American GIs. Their style, their perspective on life, their lived experience from day to day, is conveyed superbly by Poirier in fluid and compelling prose.

Above all is their passion. Poirier notes that the American journalist Theodore H. White wrestled with French news coverage after the war: "reports that looked to him highly partisan in tone and extremely light on facts. French editors, journalist heroes who had risked death in underground publications during the war, still believed that fact could be subordinated to passion and polemic."

This is, perhaps, what renders so many nostalgic for the Paris of the Left Bank: a lost era of intellectual passion against which the arms-length, evidence-based confabulations of contemporary intellectual thought are judged, and found wanting.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.