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Left Bank: A book review by Bob Morris

Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50
Agnès Poirier
Henry Holt and Company (February 2018)

It was the brightest of times, it was the darkest of times: Two tales of “The City of Lights”

The material examines Paris when was it was occupied by German forces during World War Two from 6/14/1940 until 8/25/1944, Paris; then then it was “reborn” in large measure because of those on whom Agnès Poirier focuses in this book. They include (in alpha order) Nelson Algren, Louis Aragon, Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Saul Bellow, Jacques-Laurent Bost, Albert Camus, Anne-Marie Cazalis, Janet Flanner, Jacques Jaujard, Arthur Koestler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Mamaine Paget, Jean Palhan, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone Signoret, Theodore H. White, and Richard Wright. They and others (to varying extent) established and then enriched what I view as a crucible of collective engagement during one of the darkest and brightest history of Paris and probably the history of France.

Poirier carefully organizes and presents her material within four parts. As she explains, “Left Bank is a portrait of the overlapping generations born between 1905 and 1930 who lived, loved, fought, played, and flourished between 1940 and 1950 and who intellectual and artistic output sill influences how we think, live, and even dress today today. After the horrors of war that shaped and informed them, Paris was the place where the 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.”

I commend Poirier on her skillful use of several reader-friendly devices such as “Chronology (1939-1949),” “Cast of Characters,” and an “On the Left Bank” map of key locations. It minimized distracting issues of “Who’s that” and Where’s that?” as well as “When did that happen?” along the way. Merci beaucoup!

And along the way, I highlighted more than one hundred passages. Here are three from quite different eyewitnesses in Part I, “War Was My Master.” The first is an explanation “of the unexplainable” during the Occupation by Sonderführer Gerhard Heller who was responsible “for nothing less than all of France’s literary publishing”:

“It is difficult to understand and certainly to accept that we lived happily when, right next to us, people were famished, hostages executed, Jewish children sent to concentration camps. I knew all this but I didn’t have the power nor enough conviction and courage to resist such atrocities directly. I was simply trying, in my capacity, to protect as best I could what I believed were France’s true values and talents whose existence depended partly on me. I lived in a kind of blessed island, in the middle of an ocean of mud and blood.” (Page 49)

From Jean Paul Sartre: “We were never freer than during the German occupation. Since the Nazi venom was poisoning our very own thinking, every free thought was a victory. The circumstances, often atrocious, of our fight allowed us to live openly this torn and unbearable situation one calls the Human Condition.” (55)

And now an observation by Albert Camus, with regard to the need for a post-occupation purge or épuration, as it was known in France: “A country that fails its purge is about to fail its renovation.” (76) It succeeded to a significant extent but, as Poirier suggests, it also became “a murky affair, and the discrepancy in punishments opened up a national debate on the nature of revenge and justice.” The same could be said of a revolution in France more than 150 years earlier.

I agree with Agnès Poirier that the intellectuals, writers, and artists she covers in her book tried very hard to reinvent themselves and reenchant the world after World War Two when there were so many high hopes and great expectations. They may have failed to overcome the Cold War by creating a Third Way. However, “they did leave an impressive legacy that is still felt today in many walks of life.”

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