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Book review: Left Bank

Anne Garvey is fascinated by a slice of heroic history

    Agnes Poirier
    Agnes Poirier (Photo: Hannah Starkey)

    Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950  by Agnes Poirier is published by Bloomsbury (£25) 

    When, at the end of five years of Nazi occupation, the Vichy French leader, Marshal Philippe Pètain came to trial, France’s Jewish former Prime Minister Lèon Blum called for the death penalty. “Treason,” he wrote, “is the act of selling out”, which so many had done. Terrified by the brutal onslaught of the German army, a high proportion of the French population had shrunk into collaboration during the occupation.

    By contrast, the writers and artists of the Left Bank, united in the Comité des Écrivains resistance grouping, defied the iron grip of their conquerors. The Gestapo executed its leader, Jacques Décour in May 1942 but Édith Thomas, a novelist, took over the running of the organisation — whose members included such names as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre — from her flat in the 5th arrondissement. Many “disappeared”, the only evidence of which would typically be two chairs and German cigarette butts on the floor in an empty flat.

    “There never were any traitors among us,” Édith Thomas recorded. Just as well. Secrecy was vital. In special danger as Jews, some young artists hid in plain sight — set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma worked under pseudonyms for the film director Marcel Carné.

    Bizarrely, the RAF even air-dropped copies of verse by Left Bank poet Paul Éluard: “On the steps of death I write your name” it read, “I was born to know you, To name you, Liberty”.

    Meanwhile, novelist Colette hid her young Jewish husband and the emerging actress Simone Signoret her Jewish heritage. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir pressed on with their magazine, Les Temps Modernes. Résistants Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras and her circle at 5 rue St Benoit were all members of the Communist party and, by the time of liberation, they were riding high in esteem.

    But then, Koestler’s best-selling book, Darkness at Noon, revealing the brutality of Stalin’s regime, swung the 1946 referendum away from the Communists, 52 per cent of voters handing the task of ruling France to the Social Democrats.

    Act Two of Agnes Poirier's  densely researched book switches on the post-war lights. The Left Bank survived as gloriously creative as ever — in contrast to the London that Arthur Koestler described as a “grey sick wilderness”.

    Café Flore —where Picasso drank every evening — attracted artists from across the world. Aspiring writers came from the USA on a wave of education grants. Ernest Hemingway arrived on a tank at the liberation, “jumped down outside his old girlfriend’s house and shouted her name. She and her sister ran out”.

    Norman Mailer and his young wife Bea fell for the Left Bank, and Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead from his flat in St Germaine-des-Près. Art Buchwald (determined to wangle his way into a job as New York Herald Tribune correspondent) and Lionel Abel took up bohemian life — with young mistresses.

    Saul Bellow hated Paris on arrival. He installed his young family on the Right Bank. But, with a working studio on the Left Bank, he soon acquired a 21-year-old blonde lover from an elite bourgeois family.

    The louche and relaxed, jazzy lifestyle was a sexual playground for both sexes. As the hard right tightened its grip on America, black musicians like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie found acceptance and celebration in the café culture and jazz bars.

    Loaded with references, intense in scholarship, Poirier’s book tells all in dramatic detail. It would fit any bookshelf.

     

    Anne Garvey is a freelance writer

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