‘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

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.

RATING 9 / 10