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

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

An incandescent group portrait of the midcentury artists and thinkers whose lives, loves, collaborations, and passions were forged against the wartime destruction and postwar rebirth of ParisIn this fascinating tour of a celebrated city during one of its most trying, significant, and ultimately triumphant eras, Agnes Poirier unspools the stories of the poets, writers, pain...

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Title:Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50
Author:Agnès Poirier
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Aaron Finestone

    French anglophile journalist Agnes Poirier, presents a delicious peak into the intellectual life of Paris from about 1940 to 1950. Left Bank (Henry & Company) centers on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, their loves, their students, their writing, and their circle of French, British and Americans friends who lived and created on the Left Bank in Paris.

    Poirier tells us about the cafes, theaters, restaurants, streets and hotels frequented by the existentialist set. Her book is a travelo

    French anglophile journalist Agnes Poirier, presents a delicious peak into the intellectual life of Paris from about 1940 to 1950. Left Bank (Henry & Company) centers on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, their loves, their students, their writing, and their circle of French, British and Americans friends who lived and created on the Left Bank in Paris.

    Poirier tells us about the cafes, theaters, restaurants, streets and hotels frequented by the existentialist set. Her book is a travelogue, especially useful for the reader who has never been to Paris.

    Most of all, Left Bank is about lifestyle, and what lifestyles did her characters lead!

    Poirier is an accomplished name dropper. She acquaints the reader with cultural figures whose names I had often heard, but whose lives I knew nothing about.

    As a secondary theme, Poirier tells the political story of those times, and how the main characters edge away from the Communist Party. The book concludes with the triumph of the Marshall Plan over cultural Communism in France.

  • Paul Myers

    A strong story-telling narrative of the fascinating literary personalities of the postwar world on the Left Bank in the 1949s. It puts the lives of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Arthur Koestler into one powerful interwoven story. One understands the relationships between them and possibly the central place Sartre occupied as a result of his prodigious output. The story also puts the existential writers within the context of the political movements of the time and in par

    A strong story-telling narrative of the fascinating literary personalities of the postwar world on the Left Bank in the 1949s. It puts the lives of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Arthur Koestler into one powerful interwoven story. One understands the relationships between them and possibly the central place Sartre occupied as a result of his prodigious output. The story also puts the existential writers within the context of the political movements of the time and in particular the attraction of the Communist Left against the revulsion of Stalinism. In a similar way, America and its powerfully successful economy and consumerism posed an attraction but the crass consumerism held a certain revulsion. One can sense the awareness of the cultural imperialism that the French intellectuals held for the rise of American power and its mass culture. But the idea of a European Third Way never gained traction either politically or culturally because the cold threat of Communism was too real and the liberty-creating presence of the Americans was both much needed and ever-present.

  • Denis

    This is one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a long time. As fast-moving, eventful, and thrilling as an epic novel, it is also, first and foremost, a vibrant, skillful, literate and thoroughly researched study of the mythical left bank of Paris, at the time when it became the cultural beating heart of Europe and, maybe, of the world. Philosophers, novelists, playwrights, musicians, singers, painters, aspiring artists of all kinds: everybody seems to meet on the left bank at some

    This is one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a long time. As fast-moving, eventful, and thrilling as an epic novel, it is also, first and foremost, a vibrant, skillful, literate and thoroughly researched study of the mythical left bank of Paris, at the time when it became the cultural beating heart of Europe and, maybe, of the world. Philosophers, novelists, playwrights, musicians, singers, painters, aspiring artists of all kinds: everybody seems to meet on the left bank at some point during the forties, even during the first five years, when Paris is occupied by the Nazis, and of course especially after the war. Agnès Poirier is a gifted narrator and guide, and she's remarkably knowledgeable. She does a superb job at exploring this world with fresh eyes. She deftly moves from the shadowy, terrifying times of Nazi Paris (not shying away from the ambiguous, sometimes questionable, behaviors of some famous people, but also underlining the fascinating role that some Germans who loved France and its artistic community played, often against the orders of their country) to the joyful, chaotic yet dazzling post-WWII period, which saw the birth of existentialism, and from which the myth of the left bank emerged. One of Poirier’s most astute decisions, as a historian and as a writer, is to introduce us with an equal amount of details to some of the most legendary names of the era (Picasso, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Beckett, Baldwin, Mailer, Giacometti, etc.) but also to now forgotten people who were integral part of what was then happening. Propelled by the excitement of having survived the war and of being free and at peace again, a whole generation of intellectuals and artists (some already established, some not) turned Paris’ left bank, after 1945, into a hive of extraordinary creativity. It attracted people from the whole world, especially Americans, and Poirier’s exploration of the Parisian years of people like Richard Wright is one of the highlights of her book. But, as she also brilliantly and not without humor tells it, all was not peaceful in this artistic colony: clashing ambitions, intense rivalries, ferocious political differences, tumultuous and messy love affairs, financial woes, private and public scandals pile up at a dizzying rate. It certainly makes up for immensely entertaining reading, but it also puts a very human face on some figures who, too often, have been buried under the weight of their own legend. In another clever move, Poirier very adroitly puts the women forward, and that is quite welcome. Simone de Beauvoir, who could be manipulative sometimes but who also helped many people, appears as the true heroine of this book, while a dozen of other women, who often remained hidden in the shadow of their most famous male lovers, truly shine: they deserve our admiration, and it’s exciting to learn about them. Without those women, actually, the left bank and its most iconic men would not have been what they were. Poirier justly denounces the sexism inherent to French society and the violence that some of those women were victim of: Arthur Koestler, notably, comes across as an appalling brute. Those times could be tragic for some. Mixing real discussions about philosophy, politics or arts, and fascinating anecdotes about the complicated characters that gave life to the legend of the left bank, Poirier’s book is a realistic, honest, multi-faceted ode to Paris, to Parisians, and to a decade that was a turning point in French history. Who wouldn’t have loved to meet Sartre for a coffee at the Flore, walk along the boulevard St Germain with Juliette Greco and Miles Davis, listen to Boris Vian play the trumpet in one of the neighborhood famed jazz clubs, have a vivid conversation with Richard Wright and de Beauvoir, visit Picasso’s studio, or follow Camus and his lover, the great actress Maria Casarès, along the narrow streets of what was, in fact, a rather small area? As much as during the fabled twenties, Paris after WWII was a formidable, glorious feast. The impact of what happened on the left bank during those years still resonates today, and Poirier's book is the best evocation of Paris in those turbulent times that one could find.

  • Ian Brydon

    Put most simply, this is a marvellous book: informative, enlightening, well researched and also highly entertaining. (Less importantly, but worthy of mention, it also has the most delightful cover, featuring lovely line drawings of several of the leading characters in the intellectual and literary café-based society that thrived around Paris’s fabled left bank throughout the 1940s, both during and after the German occupation.)

    Around this time last year, I took a punt on buying Sarah Bakewell’s A

    Put most simply, this is a marvellous book: informative, enlightening, well researched and also highly entertaining. (Less importantly, but worthy of mention, it also has the most delightful cover, featuring lovely line drawings of several of the leading characters in the intellectual and literary café-based society that thrived around Paris’s fabled left bank throughout the 1940s, both during and after the German occupation.)

    Around this time last year, I took a punt on buying Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. That was a serendipitous purchase that pitched me into the lives of the Existentialists, a field of which I had been lamentably ignorant. It was the unbridled joy that I derived from that chance purchase that prompted me to buy Agnès Poirier’s book, which proved to be equally felicitous.

    I was intrigued by the dates cited in the subtitle. Knowing that Paris had been occupied by the Germans for the few years of that decade I had assumed that there had been very little intellectual, cultural or political activity or progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, the intellectual class was depleted, with members either having fled to Britain or America, or signed up to fight the Germans. Jean Paul Sartre, for example, had been drafted into the French army in 1939 and had served as a meteorologist before being taken prisoner. He escaped and returned to Paris where he resumed his former role teaching at the Lycée Pasteur. Back in Paris, and reunited with his life partner Simone de Beauvoir, he found a large circle of his former associates still living and writing, with the help of some judiciously turned blind eyes from various benign individuals within the Nazi administration. Their activity flourished around the cafes of the Left bank of the River Seine. Food and money were in short supply, but somehow, they always managed to find the means to visit a café, where in addition to holding lengthy tobacco- and alcohol-fuelled debates, most of their writing was undertaken. That is not to say that their synthesis and expression of ideas was always safe. Many of their circle were arrested, or simply vanished, but it still proved a period of immense fruitfulness.

    That literary, philosophical and political fertility exploded after the Liberation, augmented by returning French writers and thinkers such as Albert Camus, and the influx of foreign artists and writers, and in particular a host of Americans such as Irwin Shaw, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Alongside them were Arthur Koestler and Samuel Beckett who had been based in Paris throughout.

    Such a concentration of intellectual and artistic talent could not fail to yield durables riches. Not only did this group spawn existentialism as a philosophical concept, but it would facilitate the development of a brand of socialism wholly opposed to communism, and, in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, yield one of the first and most enduring feminist manifestos.

    The proximity of oppression and relentless distillation of ideas proved a heady aphrodisiac, and one of the most telling aspects of the book was the interlaced relationships between the leading protagonists. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre enjoyed a long term off and on relationship, though that in no way inhibited them from taking on other lovers in between times. Similarly, Arthur Koestler seemed intent on sleeping with as many of his female associates as possible, while still wishing to retain almost proprietorial rights over Mamaine Paget, his long-time partner and eventually (if only briefly) his wife. Meanwhile Saul Bellow was openly dismissive, almost disgusted, by the constant round of infidelity among his French writing colleagues, although that did not prevent him from embarking on his own affairs while his wife and son were kept out of the way. As Agnes Poirier points out, life on the Left bank came to resemble Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde.

    All this might lead one to expect a sombre and dense tome, but Ms Poirier deploys an elegant and engaging lightness of touch, and scatters the book with lovely pen portraits of these cultural giants.

    I think this is the most enjoyable non-fiction book I have read for a very long time.

  • Alan

    There is such a gust of positive energy in this terrific overview of the artists and writers who either lived in or visited Paris during the years 1939 to 1949. Agnès Poirier makes it all come alive with a thoroughly researched history of these figures of whom many created or received the inspiration for their greatest works during this decade that was spent half in the depths of World War II and half in its post-war recovery.

    The caricature sketches on the cover give an i

    There is such a gust of positive energy in this terrific overview of the artists and writers who either lived in or visited Paris during the years 1939 to 1949. Agnès Poirier makes it all come alive with a thoroughly researched history of these figures of whom many created or received the inspiration for their greatest works during this decade that was spent half in the depths of World War II and half in its post-war recovery.

    The caricature sketches on the cover give an idea of the variety of persons included: everyone (starting 1pm and going clockwise) from

    ,

    ,

    ,

    (who only appears for 2 pages, but still dramatic ones),

    ,

    ,

    ,

    ,

    and

    . Not pictured, but also making prominent appearances are

    ,

    ,

    ,

    ,

    ,

    ,

    and many more.

    One of the best inspirations from this book is the impetus to read many of the fiction, non-fiction, and/or theatrical classics which are written about, which include everything from Algren's

    , de Beauvoir's

    , Beckett's

    (not published until 1953, but written in 1949), Bellow's

    , Camus'

    (surprisingly passed by the German censors for publication in 1942), Koestler's

    , and many others.

    Highly recommended for fans of Paris and the literature and art inspired by it!

    The Best of Juliette Greco (which includes "La rue des blancs-manteaux" (The Street of White Coats) with lyrics by Sartre & "Si tu t'imagines" (If You Imagine) with lyrics by

    , both as referenced in "Left Bank")

    The popularity of the "Jazz Hot" and "Bebop" jazz music styles is often referenced in the book and several of the prominent concerts mentioned are available on recordings and (perhaps temporarily) on YouTube including:

    Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five Live in Paris at Salle Pleyel 1948

    Dizzy Gillespie Live in Paris at Salle Pleyel February 28, 1948

    Miles Davis & Tadd Dameron Quintet Live at Salle Pleyel, Paris International Jazz Festival May 8, 1949

    The recent

    by Sarah Bakewell is a superb companion book to this current volume as it covers Sartre and de Beauvoir in even further detail.

    pg. 231 "In January 1948, Elio Vittorini... a well known Fascist (sic) intellectual, ..." This is a copy editing error in the description of anti-Fascist writer

    , writer of

    (1941) who was jailed for his writings by Italian authorities during World War II.

  • Paul

    What a phenomenal book! The style it is written in is such a joy to read, and every time it seems like it may be slipping into speculation, there is a footnote to remind you just how well researched this project has obviously been. I absolutely love this.

  • Tosh

    I can almost resist everything, except, any books about the Left Bank during the 1940s to the late 1950s. Generally, readers/culture addicts are seduced by images of Paris and its culture throughout the years. In a way, it's the conceptual 'Disneyland' for those who don't live there, yet, keep track of its beauty through pictures, movies, and of course, literature. I'm so much in tune to that world that I pretty much started up a press, TamTam Books, just focusing on the Paris post-war years, du

    I can almost resist everything, except, any books about the Left Bank during the 1940s to the late 1950s. Generally, readers/culture addicts are seduced by images of Paris and its culture throughout the years. In a way, it's the conceptual 'Disneyland' for those who don't live there, yet, keep track of its beauty through pictures, movies, and of course, literature. I'm so much in tune to that world that I pretty much started up a press, TamTam Books, just focusing on the Paris post-war years, due that I love the literature as well as the figures that came out of that time, especially Boris Vian.

    There are many books on Paris that was published throughout the years, as well as memoirs, diaries, and biographies - so it's not an obscure subject matter by any means. But it wasn't until recently one hears the name Boris Vian in English reading books on the Existentialist period. Vian was a significant figure in those years, and a lot of books about that period avoided his identity, I think due that none of his books were available in English at the time. Therefore I have to presume editors for various presses probably decided if editorial cuts are being made, it is perfectly OK to eliminate Vian in its narrative. That is not the case anymore. Although he's a side-figure in the recent book "Left Bank" by Agnès Poirier, at least he's given credit as a writer and social figure in Paris.

    Beyond that, this book doesn't have any new information, and if one is a long-term reader of Paris literary and social history, still it's a fun read and Poirier does a good job in covering all the loose ends of the rambling narrative that is the grand city of romance and ideas. All the stars are here: Juliette Gréco, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Camus, as well as the Americans that came to Paris during the post-war years, such as James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and the old stand-by's such as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. A colorful group of characters. One is in good company.

  • Mary

    I appreciated her attention to Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who went to France to escape racism and participate in Paris’s rich cultural and intellectual life. A fascinating, gossipy cultural history of Paris during and after World War II. There’s lots of information about Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre, but her portraits of expats illustrate why Paris is so captivating for us non-French folk.

  • Nancy

    There's no shortage of literature written about the famous Lost Generation of writers who populated Paris in the 1920's, and I have read my share. I was totally unfamiliar with the dynamic society of writers who made Paris their home between 1940 and 1950. This book filled that void in my knowledge about the intellectual society of Paris during that period.

    The book unfolds around the circle of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus but the allure of the city and its cafe culture attracted jazz mu

    There's no shortage of literature written about the famous Lost Generation of writers who populated Paris in the 1920's, and I have read my share. I was totally unfamiliar with the dynamic society of writers who made Paris their home between 1940 and 1950. This book filled that void in my knowledge about the intellectual society of Paris during that period.

    The book unfolds around the circle of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus but the allure of the city and its cafe culture attracted jazz musicians, aspiring journalists, playwrights, and every garden variety of intellectual that your mind could possibly conjure.

    It was easy to occasionally get bogged down by the day-t0-day domestic situations of these free-spirited individuals who seemed so intent to make their life an art form of its own, but the reward for this reader is an understanding of the striking differences between the life of these "public intellectuals" in Europe and the corresponding lifestyle of writers in America. The "ah-ha moment" for me was the statement from Richard Wright (author of NATIVE SON) that in New York he was recognized as "a successful Black novelist" and in Paris he was simply acknowledged as a writer. The sense that the society he moved in was color-blind was enough for him to move permanently to France .

    I was also intrigued by the divergent reactions of de Beauvoir, Sarte and Camus to experiences lecturing/touring America. For the most part, they were individuals with no particular interest in money (nor a specific lack of it), but after the deprivations of Europe during WW2, at least one of them was dismayed by the American exuberance for possessions --- it was just not something these very liberal individualists could identify with. But, the issue that will stay with me for some time is de Beauvoir's puzzlement that American's "don't talk about ideas" (or anything of substance) --- conversation "in society" was pleasant and meaningless and she was totally baffled by this.

    It was fascinating to be absorbed into a society of intellectuals whose primary "product" was their lifestyle. In some instances the writers' acknowledged that they were so busy "connecting" with each other and discussing their sexual and social politics that they didn't have time to write and it was then necessary to accept the fact that they were no longer writers, but "public intellectuals." I honestly can't think of a group of people in this country that we would classify as such now.

    Netgalley provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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