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“Civilization has just reached the ultimate stage of savagery…” #LeftBank #Paris

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“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! 😀

#1956Club – a great French artist considers his life and work…

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Journals of Jean Cocteau – edited and introduced by Wallace Fowlie

Today’s time travelling trip to 1956 sees me considering another great French artist – the most wonderful Jean Cocteau. I first encountered his works back in the mid-1980s, when friends dragged me off to a screening in London of two of his films, “Orphee” and “La Belle et La Bete”. If I recall correctly, it was at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, on a dreary afternoon, and I emerged afterwards stunned, into a dark rainy night, filled with a sense of wonder at the filmic visions I’d just seen. I’ve loved Cocteau and his work ever since, and as well as his films, I have quite a number of his written works…

Some of my Cocteau collection (there are many more films about….)

However, one thing I didn’t have was his “Journals”, and when I discovered this particular book had been published in 1956 I couldn’t resist searching for a copy. It’s the only book I’ve purchased for our club, and it really is a surprisingly nice edition which was very reasonably priced.

Put together following Cocteau’s election to the French Academy the previous year, this is not a traditional publication of an artist’s journals or diaries (for example, as those of Virginia Woolf have appeared) in chronological dated order. Instead, the entries are drawn from Cocteau’s other published works and gathered together by theme (presumably as a result of Wallace Fowlie’s editing process) resulting in a collection of Cocteau’s meditations and memories. This is no criticism, however, as the contents are fascinating and I believe are the result of author and editor collaborating on what should be included.

Cocteau writes about, and illustrates, his appearance…

Split up into four sections, the book takes a look at Cocteau’s childhood and early influences; he discusses his character; shares thoughts on artists and writers he’s known (such as Proust, Apollinaire and Picasso); meditates on theatre, films and aesthetics; provides some moral essays; and contemplates France and New York. Dipping into these various sections reminded me what a wonderful writer he was, as well as artist and film-maker; he used the work ‘poesie’ as an umbrella term for his oeuvre and it’s a good one.

One of Cocteau’s distinctive drawings

As well as being fascinating reading, “Journals” is also a beautiful book; my first edition hardback has lovely thick pages and features some his wonderful drawings (I adore them…) Instead of going into more detail, I though I would share a few favourite quotes from Cocteau; reconnecting with him was a marvellous experience, and the fact that I have now discovered that there was later publication of some of his diaries threatens to increase the size of the Cocteau pile above even more… ;D

On Proust:

The room of Marcel Proust, on the Boulevard Haussmann, was the first dark room where I witnessed almost every day – it would be more exact to say every night, because he lived at night – the evolution of a powerful work. He was still unknown, and I formed the habit of looking on him, from my very first visit, as a famous writer. In that stifling room, full of clouds of fumigation and dust which covered the furniture with a gray coating, we saw the activity of a beehive in which the thousands of bees of memory made their honey.

Cocteau by Francois Bret via Wikimedia Commons – Copyright ACAFRA / Estate François Bret / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On films:

The cinema is still a form of graphic art. Through its mediation, I write in pictures, and secure for my own ideology a power in actual fact. I show what others tell. In Orphee, for example, I do not narrate the passing through mirrors; I show it, and in some manner, I prove it. The means I use are not important, if my characters perform publicly what I want them to perform.

When years ago I made my first film, Blood of a Poet, I knew nothing about the profession of a movie director. I had to invent a technique. The movie professionals thought I was ridiculous. And yet it is my only film still showing throughout the world and which for seventeen years has been shown intermittently in a small New York theatre.

Cocteau’s desk via Wikimedia Commons – SiefkinDR / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On Rilke:

In 1912, for a small sum, I rented a wing of the Hotel Biron, on the rue de Varennes, where Rodin lived. In the centre of Paris, five glass doors opened onto a fairy-story park abandoned by nuns at the time of the separation of Church and State.

In the evening, at the corner window of the hotel, I used to see a lamp light up. This lamp was Rainer Maria Rilke’s. He was Auguste Rodin’s secretary. I was to know only that lamp of his, which should have become a beacon for me. Long afterwards, alas, I learned from Blaise Cendrars who Rilke was; and many years passed before Rilke became acquainted with my play Orphee, produced in Berlin by Reinhardt, and before he sent Madame K this touching telegram: “Tell Jean Cocteau I love him. He is the only one to whom is revealed the myth from which he returns tanned as from the seashore.” At the time of his death, Rilke had just begun work on the translation of Orphee. My good fortune in this and my loss in his death cannot be measured.

Fortuitous Finds

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…. or How I Fail to Control the Book Buying Habit!

I went into town today not intending to really look for or buy books – honestly! The TBR is in a terrible state, expanding faster than I can read items from it, and I’m developing space issues on my shelves despite a clear out, owing to my habit of picking up a bargain when I see it rather than hoping I will come across the same book again when I have time to read it. However, as I missed my charity shop visits last weekend owing to visiting Kent University, I thought I would pop into a couple of my favourites – which was a mistake!

powells

In one, I noticed the first volume in the four book set of “A Dance to the Music of Time”. I *was* a little tempted because I’m having trouble tracking down the individual volumes in Penguin copies at a reasonable price. It was only £2 but I was strong and rejected it. However, the very next visit was to the Samaritans Book Shop and there sitting on the little display table in the centre of the shop were all 4 volumes of the set, i.e. all of the 12 books collected – at £1.75 a volume!! At which point I capitulated and bought them, because at £7 the lot, this is considerably cheaper than trying to find the individual books online. Plus, I confess I’m struggling with the small type in the Penguins (my eyesight is suffering with increasing age!) and so I think these will be a little more manageable. And I do feel that I must get on with these, as the Anthony Powell Society are very kindly reprinting my reviews in their newsletter (which is rather exciting – more news about the society here). The downside of this purchase was carrying heavy books around town – but I should be used to this by now…

cocteaumitford
Anyway, putting aside a couple of  minor purchases above (a Cocteau for 50p and a Mitford I hadn’t heard of from the Oxfam Book Shop) I thought I was done for the day – until I wandered into one of our newer shops….

boxset1

I spotted an Angela Carter I don’t have (which would have been 50p) and just before paying had another look on the book shelves – only to realise that the book had actually been removed from this little lovely that was sitting there grinning at me:

boxset2
(OK, that’s a little fanciful, but I do feel rather like I’m constantly being tempted by books).

I’m afraid this wonderful box set was irresistible, as I only have  two of the books already and at £6 it was a bargain (especially as it’s in great nick!) It’s a box set produced for the Book People some years back (I already have an earlier one!) and after I staggered home laden with books (to be frowned at by other half), I was left with one major problem – where on earth am I going to put them all?!?!?!

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