Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940–50 by Agnès Poirier - review by Kevin Jackson

Kevin Jackson

Plenty of Sex & Nowhere to Sit

Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940–50


Bloomsbury 377pp £21.99

For a book that is crammed with adulteries, alcoholism, betrayals, broken friendships, deportations, deprivation, drug addiction, executions, humiliation, illicit abortions, imprisonment, murder, Nazi atrocities, starvation, torture chambers (on the avenue Hoche, passers-by could hear the screams coming up from the cellars’ air vents), treason and worse, Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank is a remarkably exhilarating read.

Above all, it has a terrific cast, with, as leading players, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The novelist, jazz musician and pataphysician Boris Vian, Samuel Beckett and the resident aliens Picasso and Giacometti also feature, as do brilliant African-American musicians and writers such as Miles Davis, James Baldwin and Richard Wright, the vehemently anti-communist Hungarian writer and wife-beater Arthur Koestler and, among the occupiers, the sinister but fascinating German Ernst Jünger, aesthete, entomologist and polymath.

Left Bank is an enchanting account of how these exceptionally talented and original people not merely endured these harsh years but also found pleasure, and even a kind of joy, in creating small pockets of private utopia. During the occupation, a leading German commander, Sonderführer Gerhard Heller, shared in this paradoxical pleasure and many years later recalled, ‘I lived in a kind of blessed island, in the middle of an ocean of mud and blood.’ Over the course of a decade, both during the occupation and then in the postwar years of austerity, the boldest and brightest Parisians took every opportunity to seize the day.

If strict rationing – 1,300 calories a day, if you were lucky – meant it was hard for these Parisians to make merry with the traditional eating and drinking, there were other sources of cheer: easy-going sex (which also kept you warm in unheated rooms), popular music, dancing, artistic creation and endless intense conversations, fuelled by as many cigarettes as the black market could supply. Richard Wright said that the first time he attended an editorial meeting of Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes, the cigarette smoke was so thick that initially he could not even make out the figure of Simone de Beauvoir in her trademark turban. 

As the historian Tony Judt once pointed out, the consequence of this pressure-cooker atmosphere was that Paris became more important to the rest of the world in the late 1940s and early 1950s than it had been at any time since the Battle of Waterloo. The free and freed nations soon became fascinated by everything Parisian, from Sartre’s existentialism to Dior’s New Look, and young people from the United States were among the keenest fans.

Often funded by government grants to ex-servicemen, budding North American writers found Paris as irresistible in the years immediately after the Second World War as their forebears had in the 1920s, when the dollar had ridden high against the franc. Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren (one of Simone de Beauvoir’s lovers), Irwin Shaw and Art Buchwald all set up in the City of Light, though not all of them liked it. Bellow, who, among other things, claimed that he hated French promiscuity, lapsed into serious depression: ‘Paris is the seat of a highly developed humanity, and one thus witnesses highly developed forms of suffering there. Witnesses and, sometimes, experiences. Sadness is a daily levy that civilization imposes in Paris. Gay Paris? Gay, my foot!’

By French standards, these visitors were astonishingly well fed and well dressed; by American standards, the Parisians were skinny, shabby and shockingly impoverished. The visitors could hardly believe that world-famous artists and intellectuals could be so poor that they lived in small rooms in cheap hotels and worked in cafes, not because they were bohemians (though they were) but because cafes were warm.

Few Americans could resist the temptation to go native. As de Beauvoir wrote to Algren, ‘Young existentialist boys now grow a beard; American intellectual tourists grow beards too. All these beards are awfully ugly! But the existentialist caves are a wonderful success. It is funny, just two blocks – that is all Saint-German-des-Prés – but within those two blocks you cannot find a place to sit down, neither in the bars, cafes, night-clubs nor even on the pavement. Then all around it is just darkness and death.’

Poirier is acute and witty on the love–hate relationship between Paris and America, which is one of the major themes of her book. Although left-wing thinkers of every political hue from red to pink were sceptical about American capitalism (incidentally, the French Communist Party hated Sartre and his crowd, and did its best to crush them), their attitude towards both high and low American culture was usually one of frank hero worship. As de Beauvoir commented, ‘American literature, jazz and films had nurtured our youth.’ When Camus asked Sartre if he would like to go to America on behalf of his journal, Combat, Sartre almost jumped for joy. ‘I never saw him so happy,’ Camus reported. The later pages of the book sing the praises of the Marshall Plan, which Poirier regards, justly, as one of America’s greatest achievements.

Another of her themes is the unprecedented significance of women in this milieu. In many works of cultural history, women appear simply as wives and daughters, mistresses and muses. But here are the bookshop owners Sylvia Beach (who had published Ulysses in 1922) and Adrienne Monnier, the actresses Maria Casarès (who played Death in Cocteau’s Orphée), Arletty, star of Les Enfants du paradis, notorious for sleeping with the enemy, Brigitte Bardot and Delphine Seyrig. The singers include Juliette Gréco, for whom both Sartre and Raymond Queneau wrote lyrics, and many writers: the novelist Marguerite Duras, the poet Anne-Marie Cazalis, the Horizon representative Sonia Brownell (soon to marry the dying George Orwell), who had been forced to abort Koestler’s child during the Blitz, the novelist and biographer Edith Thomas, Janet Flanner, who reported on Paris for the New Yorker, and Dominique Aury, who wrote Histoire d’O under the pseudonym Pauline Réage.

Above all, there is de Beauvoir, who, now that the dust has settled, should be seen as the most permanently influential of all these remarkable women and, come to that, men. The Second Sex, written during this period, has surely touched the lives of countless millions, which can hardly be said of Being and Nothingness. Poirier credits de Beauvoir with, among other accomplishments, being the woman whose writings, example and spirit created the likes of Françoise Sagan and Bardot, who were adolescents on the brink of fame in the summer of 1949.

Poirier has an enviably clear prose style, as well as a gift for making her characters vivid and, where appropriate, sympathetic. Sartre, for instance, comes across as a much more appealing character here than in many biographical studies. She has a lynx’s eye for telling details, from the ghastly ersatz coffee that Parisians had to choke down to the brands of amphetamine freely available in pharmacies – Luminax, Leviton, Tranquidex, Psychotron (!), Lidepran and Sartre’s excitant of choice, Orthédrine.

And she is very good on the stories behind stories, such as the bafflement with which the publisher Gallimard reacted when, three weeks after its publication, Sartre’s seven-hundred-page Being and Nothingness became a freak bestseller. Explanation? ‘It turned out that since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, since the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.’ Perhaps Poirier’s most remarkable achievement is to make her cast seem so interesting and their concerns so urgent that, despite all the horror and the squalor, this Parisian decade can be regarded as a dawn in which for some it was bliss to be alive, and to be young was even better.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter