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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Left Bank

Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50

Agnès Poirier

Henry Holt and Co.



Left Bank is a portrait of the overlapping generations born between 1905 and 1930, who lived, loved, fought, played, and flourished in Paris between 1940 and 1950 and whose intellectual and artistic output still influences how we think, live, and even dress today. After the horrors of war that shaped and informed them, Paris was the place where the world’s most original voices of the time tried to find an independent and original alternative to the capitalist and Communist models for life, arts, and politics—a Third Way.

Those young men and women, budding novelists, philosophers, painters, composers, anthropologists, theorists, actors, photographers, poets, editors, publishers, and playwrights, shaped by the ordeals of the Second World War, did not always share the same political or cultural outlook, but they had three things in common: the experience of war, their brush with death, and the elation of the Liberation in Paris. And they promised themselves to reenchant a world left in ruins. Left Bank is the story of their life-changing synergy and explores the fertile fields of interaction among art, literature, theater, anthropology, philosophy, politics, and cinema in postwar Paris.

After four years of Nazi occupation and daily torment, Paris’s galleries, boulevards, jazz clubs, bistros, bookshops, and the myriad daily newspapers and monthly reviews born in the last years of the war became forums for heated discussions, battle plans, and manifestos. Among the most influential periodicals: Combat, edited by Albert Camus; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Temps modernes (named after Chaplin’s film Modern Times); and of course, a few years later, the many Paris-based English-language magazines catering to an international crowd of ex-GIs and students flocking to the city. These flourishing publications, all edited within one square mile, boasted an audience well beyond Paris. When editorialists and artists shouted on the boulevard Saint-Germain, their cry echoed in Manhattan, Algiers, Moscow, Hanoi, and Prague. These intellectuals, artists, and writers were heard and followed by decision makers in Europe and elsewhere in the world precisely because they originated from Paris.

How could Paris regain such a high cultural standing so soon after the war? Germany was in eclipse, Russian and Eastern European cultural life devastated, Spain isolated by General Franco’s regime, Italy busy recovering from a generation of Fascism, and Britain as marginal as ever to European intellectual debates. To paraphrase the Anglo-American historian Tony Judt, despite France’s own relative decline, Paris’s voice mattered more during the decade after the war than it had at any time since 1815, the peak of Napoleonic grandeur.

Together, in Paris, our band of brothers and sisters created new codes. They founded the New Journalism, which got its official name a decade later but was born then, in the smoky hotel rooms of the Left Bank, and forever blurred the lines between literature and reportage. Poets and playwrights slowly buried Surrealism and invented the Theater of the Absurd; budding painters transcended Socialist Realism, pushed Geometric Abstraction to its limits, and fostered Action Painting. Philosophers founded new schools of thought such as Existentialism while setting up political parties. Aspiring writers found their voices in Paris’s gutters and the decrepit student rooms of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while others invented the nouveau roman. Photographers reclaimed their authorship through photojournalism agencies such as Magnum; censored American writers such as Henry Miller published their work first in French; black jazz musicians, fleeing segregation at home, found consecration in the concert halls and jazz clubs of Paris, where New Orleans jazz received its long-overdue appreciation while bebop was bubbling up. Some in the Catholic Church experimented with Marxism, while a colorist and former art gallery owner turned couturier named Christian Dior intoxicated the world with the New Look in fashion design.

After 1944, everything was political; there was no escape. World citizens of the Left Bank knew this, and they did all they could to question both U.S. policies and the Communist Party’s views. Paris was, for them, both a refuge and a bridge to think in a different way. They opened up the possibility of a Third Way, ardently embracing the idealism of the United Nations and the glimmer of utopia in what would later become the European Union. Those pioneers also reinvented their relationships to others. They questioned, shook, and often rejected the institutions of marriage and family and adopted polyamory as an ambition in life. They campaigned for the right to abortion thirty years before it was legalized and consumed drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol with passion. Their heightened sexuality proved an inherent part of their creativity and permeated everything they did. They also proved, with only a few exceptions, to be very hard workers, workaholics even. They worked hard and played hard.

Women took on a central role. The Mona Lisa’s return to the Louvre after six years of hiding during the war heralded a new era in which Elle magazine was founded and edited by twenty-nine-year-old Françoise Giroud, who would become a government minister exactly twenty-nine years later. As Colette, the grande dame of French literature, passed away, so did the figure of the demimondaine. Bardot and Beauvoir became the two new faces of feminism to whom the world would soon surrender. In this predominantly male environment, only very strong women survived and made a mark. You had to be pugnacious in those years if you wanted to exist as an individual and not just as the escort of a great man. Women who refused to be just wives, or mistresses, more often than not exploited by their famous and unfaithful other halves, were almost all bisexual, and female Don Juans. Some were even on the quest for a Third Way into sex, as in politics. The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, who signed all her articles with the pseudonym Genêt, known before the war for her statuesque and beautiful female lovers, asked her liberal mother in a letter in 1948: “Why cannot there be a third sex, a sex not dominated by muscle or the inclination to breed?”1 A good question in a decade bursting with testosterone.

All of them—male and female, artists and thinkers—set new codes and standards, achieved a string of undeniable successes, and left behind a litany of failures. Tony Judt addresses the latter in the academic work Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–1956.2 His resentment and frustration pour from the pages like those of a spurned lover. Paris intellectuals had so much power bestowed on them by circumstances and their own genius and yet failed, in his view, to change the world. “This contrast, the failure of French intellectuals to fulfil the hopes invested in them by their admirers, together with the influence exerted by the French intellectual life in other Western countries, had a decisive impact on the history of post-war European life.” Tony Judt, himself shaped by French thinking, would never forgive Sartre & Co. for having let their contemporaries down when they needed them most. He even called his book “an essay on intellectual irresponsibility.”3 That they were expected to change the world in the first place raises the question: How did they arouse so much wild hope? Left Bank is as much about postwar Parisian intellectual irresponsibility as about political, artistic, moral, and sexual incandescence.

Though Left Bank offers a narrative of Paris between 1940 and 1950, it is not a work of fiction, nor is it an academic analysis; it is a reconstruction, a collage of images, a kaleidoscope of destinies based on a variety of sources and documents. Memory is a perilous terrain. Archives, for instance, provide facts but may not reveal the whole picture. Meeting in the flesh and interviewing some of the actors and witnesses of the period proved essential, but also frustrating. One says only what one wants to say, and one’s truth is not the whole truth. Autobiographies and memoirs are the same: they are often as interesting for what they conceal as for what they reveal. Journals, diaries, and correspondence, written as events took place and not tampered with or rewritten years after, are almost as reliable as archives, like a stream of consciousness unpolluted by afterthought. However, objectivity and neutrality do not exist in personal recollections and relationships. As Richard Seaver, an American student in Paris in 1948 who introduced Samuel Beckett to the Anglophone world, wrote in the preface of his autobiography The Tender Hour of Twilight: “Time is not kind to the harried mind, filling it each passing day with the detritus of the moment, like silt at a river’s mouth slowly covering the earlier levels and slyly reconstituting the terrain.”4

I was therefore left cross-checking information through a multitude of sources, press cuttings, interviews, archives, photographs—as many and varied documents as I could lay my hands on. My days at the French National Library, also known as the Très Grande Bibliothèque, proved illuminating too—not only because of what I found there, but also because of the architectural experience it provides for researchers. It is probably the only truly Stalinist building in Paris with its crushing scale, Kafkaesque maze of corridors, some of them leading nowhere, and metallic doors as heavy as gravestones—and thus offers the unexpectedly perfect setting for the study of postwar culture and politics.

Paris being Paris, many places have not changed since the 1940s, and I tried to find those “crime scenes,” as I thought of them, hoping to capture the atmosphere of the time and to lay my hands on objects that had been touched by the ghosts I was stalking. Many of our protagonists lived in decrepit and cheap Left Bank hotels; those are still here today, but many have been transformed into luxury boutique lodgings. Except one: La Louisiane,5 family-owned since the time of Napoleon. Beauvoir lived there for five years, between 1943 and 1948, and so did Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Juliette Gréco, and many others. There may be free wifi today,6 but the rooms at La Louisiane have not changed much since the 1940s. I booked myself in and slept between those evocative walls, reliving Beauvoir’s words:

Thursday, May 16, 1946. Spring is coming. On my way to get cigarettes, I saw beautiful bunches of asparagus, wrapped in red paper and lying on the vegetable stall. Work. I have rarely felt so much pleasure writing, especially in the afternoon, when I come back at 4:30 p.m. in this room still full of the morning’s smoke. On my desk, sheets of paper covered in green ink. The touch of my cigarette and pen, at the tip of my fingers, feels nice. I really understand Marcel Duchamp when, asked whether he regretted having abandoned painting, he replied: “I miss the feeling of squeezing the paint tube and seeing the paint spilling onto the palette; I liked that.”7

I never expected the past to assault, as it were, my every sense. I had expected a joust of ideas, endless intellectual disputes, but not for the past to materialize so clearly that I could touch it, smell it, even taste it.

For me, writing this story has been rather like walking into a house on fire. The live fire of the war, the furnace of emotions, the passion of politics, the spectacular fallings-out, the brutal sex, the nerve-racking frustrations, the insane and beautiful ideals, the plotting of big schemes—so many failures and some remarkable achievements. The subjects of this book might have failed in the end to prevent the Cold War from becoming the new world order; they did, however, set up many standards by which we still live, three-quarters of a century later.

Copyright © 2018 by Agnes Poirier