Tuesday 26 June 2018

Book review and interview: “Left Bank” by Agnès Poirier

The ancient heart of Paris gives its name to a recently published book by writer and journalist Agnès Poirier, but rather than the history, geography or architecture of the district, it is an extraordinary period in its life in the middle of the twentieth century, and more particularly on a cast of fascinating characters that take centre stage.

If the Left Bank of Paris had already (re)developed artistic and cultural relevance in the 1920s and 30s, it is the period between 1940 and 1950 that Poirier convincingly argues was the era when the rive gauche truly played a world-changing role. At the heart of the book – which she describes as being neither a work of fiction nor an academic analysis, but rather a “reconstruction, a collage of images, a kaleidoscope of destinies” – are two extremely magnetic poles; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Encouraged and often financed by Sartre and de Beauvoir, an exclusive hand-picked cluster of artists, writers and journalists not only worked and developed together throughout the 1940s, but also seemingly spent much of the decade jumping in and out of each other’s beds in various dingy locations in Paris’s Latin Quarter. As this group matures, it is the contrast between its almost claustrophobic and incestuous nature with the extremely wide impact it had across the world that is most striking aspect of Poirier’s story.

How did a group of intellectuals and artists based in a tiny geographical zone come to transcend the cultural elite and become something akin to prototypical pop stars, influencing "how we think, live and even dress today"? This is the question that fascinates Poirier, who guides us on frenetic journey through war, peace, politics and philosophy, with equal amounts of sex, jealousy, betrayal and violence. It is a spectacle played out by a cast of domineering, philandering men, and a generation of strong women determined to live by their own rules.

Poirier is not so much interested in the ideas and theories of the protagonists – this is not the place for dissections of existentialism and phenomenology – but rather the internal shapeshifting dynamics of the group(s), how they perceived the world around them and how the rest of the world perceived them.

Her own personal voyage for this book was through deep mining of letters, diaries, memoirs and contemporary reporting in the subterranean corridors of the French national library, but she did briefly come up to test the atmosphere downstream in today’s Left Bank. “Paris being Paris, many places have not changed since the 1940s,” she points out when hunting down what she calls the “crime scenes”. Nothing has changed and everything has changed in a part of the city that has flipped from the bohemian to the bourgeois. The cafés and bars are still there, but the atmosphere has been drained away. Poirier does though find one tiny trace of the spirit of the 1940s during a stay at the La Louisiane hotel. Still run by the same family as when it provided a home to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, it has yet to sell its soul. Here at last she could “touch it, smell it, even taste it”.

This ghostly matter rediscovered, it is how Poirier pieces it back together and gives flesh to a large ensemble cast of iconic names (a helpful list is provided at the beginning of the book!) that makes ‘Left Bank’ a particularly engaging read. Here is a group of individuals who are not a lost generation like the post-WW1 Left Bank crowd in the 1920s who turned to escapism, surrealism and excessive quantities of alcohol as a result of their wartime experiences, but a generation who instead looked to rebuild a world (and city) riven by war by using the power of art, literature and philosophy.

Whether they were successful or not in the longer term is a recurring moot point, but their courageous pursuit of a so-called “third way” is a stirring motif throughout the book. It describes their search for a societal model between capitalism and communism, an ideological battle that was fought in France like nowhere else on earth, but also the emancipation from traditional male and female roles towards a third sex “not dominated by muscle or the inclination to breed” as American Paris-based journalist Janet Flanner wrote.

Agnès Poirier dedicates 'Left Bank' to several of the characters in the book. She "fell in love" with Irwin Shaw and the Louvre's saviour Jacques Jaujard, was "awed by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's brazen intelligence" and even "smiled at Saul Bellow's superiority complex". It is easy to imagine Poirier looking on delightedly at the group from the smoky corner of a basement jazz bar. Her admiration for this generation is printed indelibly on every page of this captivating book.

Buy a copy of Left Bank here.

A short interview with Agnès Poirier

What inspired you about the city’s Left Bank life and its inhabitants in the 1940s, rather than in a different decade?

AP: It is probably because it is a crucial decade and includes the war years and occupation and liberation of Paris which shaped and informed all the characters of Left Bank. We see their transformation, their evolution as human and political beings, and that fascinated me.

You describe your book as being a ‘story’. Why was it important for you to bring a touch of fantasy to this project?

Am not sure fantasy is the word. I wanted to give it texture and flesh, humanity and feelings, a narrative. It's not only about ideas but the people who carried them. I wanted it to be accessible, in other word a good read.

One of the greatest achievements of the post-war Left Bank intellectuals, you state, is that they “crushed bourgeois morality”. However, 18 years later, another group of Left Bank intellectuals was once again combating bourgeois conservatism, this time on the streets. Was the fact that May 68 occurred another example of the failure of the post-war intellectuals?

Or an example of the conformism of May 68 rebels? There is a certainly a will (and impossibility) to measure up to the previous generation who lived through the war.

The post-war Left Bank intellectuals changed not only the way people thought, but also how they dressed, behaved and socialized. Could it be argued that their impact was greater and more lasting in popular culture than anywhere else? Were they in a sense the first pop stars to a youth demographic that had never previously existed?

A very good point. The figure of the teenager didn't exist then. When Brigitte Bardot emerges as a 15 year-old model on the cover of women magazines, she's the first occurrence of youth (not a child and yet not an adult) as a concept. And so does, for instance, at the same time, the writer Françoise Sagan. This is a new era and Sartre and Beauvoir, among many others, are their idols.

Although largely unchanged physically from the 1940s, today’s Left Bank is a fairly sterile and uninspired part of Paris. Do you see any of the post-war spirit alive anywhere on the southern side of the city?

I see it alive each time I notice the opening of a new independent bookshop for instance, in the 11th, 10th, 12th, 20th, and I see it dying whenever an artisan shop is replaced by another clothes emporium!

1 comment:

Hels said...

Thank you for a new view. In the past I normally thought of the 1920s Années folles as the special era in post war French history. Alcoholic and escapist to be sure, but rich in artistic and cultural efforts to re-establish life after the devastation of WW1. I might not have even liked Tristan Tzara and Josephine Baker, but I understood them totally.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Instagram Write Bookmark this page More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Premium Wordpress Themes