“Left Bank” by Agnes Poirier has been sitting on Mount TBR for a couple of years now; if I recall correctly, I picked it up in my local Waterstones when I had a book token, liking the sound of it. The subtitle is “Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940–1950”, and of course with a cover featuring Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus it was always going to appeal… However, although this book is a fascinating and engrossing read, I actually feel that the cover undersells it! 😀

Poirier is a French-born journalist and author, and has written in both English and French; here, the book is presumably written originally in the former. “Left…” is a book which explores life in France’s capital city during a decade of great change and disruption, with the focus mainly on Paris’s intelligentsia. It was a period which saw Nazi occupation, collaboration, liberation and reconstruction, and at the heart of all this were artists, poets, writers and philosophers – the people who seemed to shape French life in a way that the intelligentsia don’t in other countries.

As the book opens, Paris is a city full of intellectual life. Sartre’s first novel, “Nausea”, has been published in 1938, existentialism as a philosophy is gaining popularity, and he and Beauvoir set the tone for what the rest of Paris thinks. However, WW2 breaks out, and what follows will tear the city (and indeed the country) asunder. Poirer goes on to lead the reader through the War and occupation years, which were dark ones for Parisians, exploring the complex range of characters who lived in the city during that period, and how they negotiated the difficulties of occupation. Once Paris was liberated, the end of the war brought change to the whole of France; and the political and intellectual conflicts between left and right were intense and often violent. Poirier’s narrative runs until 1950, when the divide between East and West in the world was becoming hardened, and the decade which followed would see much of the world slipping into conservatism.

Poirier casts her net wide and the list of those involved in her story is huge; in fact, although she does provide a ‘Cast of Characters’ at the beginning, this is a smallish selection of those who feature, and it was occasionally hard to keep track of who was who. Obviously, the dominant characters are Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, although interestingly Arthur Koestler is a key player. He’s also, unfortunately, not a pleasant man…. Boris Vian, a perhaps lesser known figure nowadays, plays a prominent part in the narrative, as does Beckett, and of course the many artists of Paris (notably Picasso) are a regular presence.

Paris during the Occupation (Bundesarchiv, N 1576 Bild-007 / Herrmann, Ernst / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Left…” delves deeply into life during occupation and reveals how complicated it was to cope with being under Nazi control. There were, of course, resistance movements; and yet some Parisians chose to accomodate or work with the German occupiers to either ensure the survival of Paris’s massive collections of art treasures, or to help other vulnerable Parisians survive, or just to make things easier for themselves. There is no doubt the privations were great, and Poirier is not judgemental re collaboration; in particular, the art of Paris would never have survived had it not been for the combined efforts of Louvre director Jaujard and German Count Metternich, sent to Paris by the Nazis to safeguard the art. Sometimes matters higher than loyalty to country came into play.

The Occupation had been a laboratory of moral ambiguity as in no other period in France’s contemporary history. The coexistence, for four long years, of heroism, passivity, cowardice and duplicity is, three-quarters of a century later, something France is still trying to come to terms with.

Once the war was over, the politics of France became particularly complex, with conflict between the communists, who had played such a major part in the resistance, and the forces of the Gaullists, both vying for power. In a way unlike any other country I can think of, Paris’s intellectuals were deeply involved in politics, trying to find a middle ground between the polar opposities of left and right wing. Their ‘Third Way’ was, alas, doomed to failure, but it would have been wonderful if they had managed to find some political balance. In fact, the book ranges outside Paris and explores the connections with the US, and the attraction Paris had for people from the other side of the pond. In particular, authors of colour such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin found that attitudes in Paris were completely different and that they didn’t encounter in Paris the racial harrassment they did in the states. Conversely, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus all visited America and found it very different from Europe and so there was a kind of culture shock both ways. Poirer discusses the role of public intellectuals in France as something unique, and certainly I can think of no equivalent in Britain or the US, where intellectual discussion is rather frowned upon…

If most of the hopes laid at the feet of Paris intellectuals, writers and artists just after the Second World War were partly dashed by the force of bloc politics, and their own ideological and moral ambivalence, it remains that seldom before had a generation tried so hard to reinvent themselves and re-enchant the world.

Towards the end of the narrative, a younger generation start to appear, often young women unhappy to play second fiddle to the men. Francoise Sagan, Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot take their inspiration from Beauvoir’s lifestyle and work, taking life on their own terms – which is refreshing, because amongst the earlier generation, as usual, the women often play second fiddle to the men; putting up with their awful behaviour, working and supporting them without thanks or acknowledgement, and often being abandoned on a whim. As I mentioned above, Koestler comes out of the book as really unpleasant; his behaviour towards the women in his life seems to have been quite reprehensible.

As I said at the start of my review, I do feel that the cover undersells the book considerably, focusing as it does on the post-War period. As well as exploring the personal lives of its protagonists, “Left Bank” is a wide-ranging and long form work which takes a deep look at the effects of WW2 on France, the issue of collaboration, the politics, the post-war political conflicts all over Europe and even the development of the Cold War. Poirier brings a unique perspective to the history of the time, portraying a Europe stuck in the middle of the two great opposing forces which would everntually come together in a Common Market to secure their own political identity. “Left Bank” is an exhaustive, if occasionally exhausting, account of politics, love and sex, and how they all came together in Paris during a pivotal decade. A wonderful and engrossing read!

*****

Just managing to squeeze this review in before the end of the month and so I shall definitely count it for Non Fiction November! 😀