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

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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 Paris In 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 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 Paris In 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, painters, and philosophers whose lives collided to extraordinary effect between 1940 and 1950. She gives us the human drama behind some of the most celebrated works of the 20th century, from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Saul Bellow's Augie March, along with the origin stories of now legendary movements, from Existentialism to the Theatre of the Absurd, New Journalism, bebop, and French feminism. We follow Arthur Koestler and Norman Mailer as young men, peek inside Picasso’s studio, and trail the twists of Camus's Sartre's, and Beauvoir’s epic love stories. We witness the births and deaths of newspapers and literary journals and peer through keyholes to see the first kisses and last nights of many ill-advised bedfellows. At every turn, Poirier deftly hones in on the most compelling and colorful history, without undermining the crucial significance of the era. She brings to life the flawed, visionary Parisians who fell in love and out of it, who infuriated and inspired one another, all while reconfiguring the world's political, intellectual, and creative landscapes. With its balance of clear-eyed historical narrative and irresistible anecdotal charm, Left Bank transports readers to a Paris teeming with passion, drama, and life.


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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 Paris In 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 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 Paris In 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, painters, and philosophers whose lives collided to extraordinary effect between 1940 and 1950. She gives us the human drama behind some of the most celebrated works of the 20th century, from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Saul Bellow's Augie March, along with the origin stories of now legendary movements, from Existentialism to the Theatre of the Absurd, New Journalism, bebop, and French feminism. We follow Arthur Koestler and Norman Mailer as young men, peek inside Picasso’s studio, and trail the twists of Camus's Sartre's, and Beauvoir’s epic love stories. We witness the births and deaths of newspapers and literary journals and peer through keyholes to see the first kisses and last nights of many ill-advised bedfellows. At every turn, Poirier deftly hones in on the most compelling and colorful history, without undermining the crucial significance of the era. She brings to life the flawed, visionary Parisians who fell in love and out of it, who infuriated and inspired one another, all while reconfiguring the world's political, intellectual, and creative landscapes. With its balance of clear-eyed historical narrative and irresistible anecdotal charm, Left Bank transports readers to a Paris teeming with passion, drama, and life.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    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.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jay Green

    Devoured this in a matter of hours. It would suit readers with a superficial familiarity with and interest in the period and its dramatis personae. Don't expect any great exposition of the existentialists' ideas. It's pretty much a run-of-the-mill journalistic chronology of events based on the autobiographies and biographies of those involved. If you've read Damned to Fame, Annie Cohen-Solal's Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life, and de Beauvoir's autobiographies, there's very little in this that w Devoured this in a matter of hours. It would suit readers with a superficial familiarity with and interest in the period and its dramatis personae. Don't expect any great exposition of the existentialists' ideas. It's pretty much a run-of-the-mill journalistic chronology of events based on the autobiographies and biographies of those involved. If you've read Damned to Fame, Annie Cohen-Solal's Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life, and de Beauvoir's autobiographies, there's very little in this that will be new to you. Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe is a far more interesting and detailed book. That said, I'm hoping that this is the first in a series on this subject, because there's so much more to tell and because it feels like many of the stories have been left hanging in mid-air.

  3. 5 out of 5

    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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Goldenberg

    Whenever I play that game of choosing a historical period and a place where and when I would most have liked to live then post-war left bank Paris is often my choice. Sitting around in cafes discussing life, politics and literature with the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus or just being a flâneur and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of vin rouge. This is a very entertaining history of the period. The contrast between Paris during the occupation and the exuberance and intellect Whenever I play that game of choosing a historical period and a place where and when I would most have liked to live then post-war left bank Paris is often my choice. Sitting around in cafes discussing life, politics and literature with the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus or just being a flâneur and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of vin rouge. This is a very entertaining history of the period. The contrast between Paris during the occupation and the exuberance and intellectual excitement of the immediate post-war period gives it added strength and seriousness. There’s a perfect mix of the day to day lives of these writers and intellectuals (especially their complex and promiscuous love lives) and the political and social struggle to rebuild the governance and institutions of a war shattered city. Particularly enjoyable and interesting was the contrast between the native Parisians and the influx of young American writers with their superior spending power and their more puritanical morals. The cast of characters is extensive but the star of the show is Simone de Beauvoir and her assertion of a new kind of sexual and social female independence.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Travis

    A mostly chronological smattering of stories involving the writers, artists, musicians, and others who lived through WWII in Paris and the five years after. It didn't feel as cohesive as it could have, but was pretty fascinating all the same. A mostly chronological smattering of stories involving the writers, artists, musicians, and others who lived through WWII in Paris and the five years after. It didn't feel as cohesive as it could have, but was pretty fascinating all the same.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Alan Teder

    A Not-So-Lost Generation 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 A Not-So-Lost Generation 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 Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, Miles Davis (who only appears for 2 pages, but still dramatic ones), Juliette Gréco, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin and Jean-Paul Sartre. Not pictured, but also making prominent appearances are Nelson Algren, Dominique Aury, Samuel Beckett, Art Buchwald, Edith Thomas, Theodore H. White, Richard Wright 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 The Man With the Golden Arm, de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Beckett's Waiting for Godot(not published until 1953, but written in 1949), Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Camus' The Stranger (surprisingly passed by the German censors for publication in 1942), Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and many others. Highly recommended for fans of Paris and the literature and art inspired by it! Music Links 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 Raymond Queneau, both as referenced in "Left Bank") https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjHlZ... 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsp0t... Dizzy Gillespie Live in Paris at Salle Pleyel February 28, 1948 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CKSV... Miles Davis & Tadd Dameron Quintet Live at Salle Pleyel, Paris International Jazz Festival May 8, 1949 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL_Sq... Further Book Link The recent At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell is a superb companion book to this current volume as it covers Sartre and de Beauvoir in even further detail. #ThereIsAlwaysOne 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 Elio Vittorini, writer of Conversations in Sicily (1941) who was jailed for his writings by Italian authorities during World War II.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Horton

    I’ve read quite a bit about the Lost Generation, and this book differs from many others in that it begins with the war, which Poitier (rightly) insists set up the environment of 1940s/1950s Paris. I found the first third of the book fascinating. The author has a way of crystallizing a time and trends that makes them easily digestible, and it’s apparent that her premise of the war creating the Lost Generation is correct. However, I then bogged down in the daily grind, the details, the seemingly un I’ve read quite a bit about the Lost Generation, and this book differs from many others in that it begins with the war, which Poitier (rightly) insists set up the environment of 1940s/1950s Paris. I found the first third of the book fascinating. The author has a way of crystallizing a time and trends that makes them easily digestible, and it’s apparent that her premise of the war creating the Lost Generation is correct. However, I then bogged down in the daily grind, the details, the seemingly unrelated affairs/grievances/fits/betrayals that fill the rest of the book. I can’t say that I came away from the read enlightened, or that my respect for the artists, journalists, and hangers-on increased after reading Left Bank, but I do have a better understanding of the mindset. This is not a breezy read, but it’s a good book that evokes a time and place that created (or sharpened and nourished) artistic geniuses whose names are still revered. Recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    M

    Not being particularly into existentialist writers I wasn’t sure I would like this book. But it’s more a cultural history of Paris - including the thoughts, emotions, and even gooey gossip of the writers, artists, cinematographers, politicians, etc. who spent their formative years in Paris during and just after the Occupation.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dan O'Meara

    I was hooked by this account of a world in political and intellectual turmoil. Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins is one of my favourite novels, and Agnès Poirier's account of the world that de Beauvoir rendered in fiction is the perfect counterpart to that brilliant novel. I was hooked by this account of a world in political and intellectual turmoil. Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins is one of my favourite novels, and Agnès Poirier's account of the world that de Beauvoir rendered in fiction is the perfect counterpart to that brilliant novel.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Christian Peltenburg-brechneff

    Loved the book. Slightly gossipy but knowing a lot about most characters it is a wonderful journey through a world of the past. Not always written as poetic as the writers were but it flows along...anyone who is interested in that time in Paris should pick it up

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nicola Pierce

    Utterly enjoyable and compelling read about writers, artists and the politically aware in 1940s/50s Paris. It flows like water out of the tap; the research and the attention to detail are made thoroughly accessible thanks to the delicious intelligence and fine writing style of Poirier. A joy to read!

  14. 4 out of 5

    June Nguyen

    I happily devoured myself in discovering the French society through this book. Poirer depicted justly the vibrant intellectual life Paris once inspired the world and shaped modern philosophy.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Heavily detailed but interesting nonetheless.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Paul "Axl" Hurman

    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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    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.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ed Terrell

    The Left Bank is a wonderfully well written book, both history and biography. Wandering up and down the streets of Montmartre and the Rive Gauche in post war Paris, you dont just get to glimpse Simone de Beauvoir with her arms around her current beau, but you get to dive into her life, her philosophy, her loves. Sartre and Camus argue over existentialism and Arthur Koestler makes a hit with his fiction. Paris is changing rapidly. Bread lines and rationing are over, and the young in Paris are rei The Left Bank is a wonderfully well written book, both history and biography. Wandering up and down the streets of Montmartre and the Rive Gauche in post war Paris, you dont just get to glimpse Simone de Beauvoir with her arms around her current beau, but you get to dive into her life, her philosophy, her loves. Sartre and Camus argue over existentialism and Arthur Koestler makes a hit with his fiction. Paris is changing rapidly. Bread lines and rationing are over, and the young in Paris are reinventing themselves. And we are all better off for it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sunil

    A rollicking account of a small, well-documented section of Paris, but re-tread here in one continuous, fizzy, gossipy story.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen Adkins

    The existentialists were exciting for lots of reasons; their focus on philosophy that responded to the world in all its messiness means that they endlessly attempted to argue about how we ought to live in important ways--our politics, our family relations, our ethics. They also lived their values, for better (renouncing bourgeois ways meant owning little, taking public stands that would cost them) and for worse (renouncing bourgeois monogamy apparently also sometimes means treating sex partners The existentialists were exciting for lots of reasons; their focus on philosophy that responded to the world in all its messiness means that they endlessly attempted to argue about how we ought to live in important ways--our politics, our family relations, our ethics. They also lived their values, for better (renouncing bourgeois ways meant owning little, taking public stands that would cost them) and for worse (renouncing bourgeois monogamy apparently also sometimes means treating sex partners like interchangeable objects, which seems like a bad-faith contradiction). This is an interesting book, but as a friend of mind says, "it puts the scandal front and center," which ended up wearing on me personally. I prefer Sarah Bakewell's *At the Existentialist Cafe*, which certainly doesn't minimize the scandal but integrates it pretty thoroughly with the ideas. But it's still worth a read; in particular, what Poirier does *very* well is focus on black Americans (Baldwin, Wright, Ellison) who come to Paris as a reprieve from American racism, and how disorienting America is (both exciting and repulsive) to existentialists during their tours.

  21. 5 out of 5

    emily

    Incredibly immersive writing that truly drew me into the lives of artists during the years of the Occupation if Paris up until the summer of 1949. I also think it really captured what it is to be a creative person pursuing creative goals and dedicated to pushing to boundaries of art in response to current world events, not just as an individual but also as a community. Minus a star because there were times (I felt) where the central through-line of the chapter/figure was deviated from a little t Incredibly immersive writing that truly drew me into the lives of artists during the years of the Occupation if Paris up until the summer of 1949. I also think it really captured what it is to be a creative person pursuing creative goals and dedicated to pushing to boundaries of art in response to current world events, not just as an individual but also as a community. Minus a star because there were times (I felt) where the central through-line of the chapter/figure was deviated from a little too far, which made it tedious to read. Overall, I think this was one of the best, most emotionally compelling non-fiction books I’ve read and I’ve been inspired to read more from this era because of it.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Supriyo Chaudhuri

    A beautifully written part collective biography part chronicle of times of Left Bank intellectuals and Artists of Paris in the years during and after the war. It is a bold attempt to understand and explain the creative ferment that Paris stood for in those grim years of rationing and reconstruction, through an impressive cast of characters drawn from all over the world, including the GI bill funded Americans and other writers who went to Paris to 'find themselves'. A beautifully written part collective biography part chronicle of times of Left Bank intellectuals and Artists of Paris in the years during and after the war. It is a bold attempt to understand and explain the creative ferment that Paris stood for in those grim years of rationing and reconstruction, through an impressive cast of characters drawn from all over the world, including the GI bill funded Americans and other writers who went to Paris to 'find themselves'.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Yvonne

    This book draws no conclusions, but is a succession of juicy tidbits about writers’ personal lives. Too much vital information is left out, too many plot holes, too much tension with no logical release. The writing style is also odd—convoluted sentences, calling historical figures by their first name in one sentence and their last name in the next.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Quite fast paced and richly informative in a small number of pages. The gossip element often ran away with me at times, however the entire book evoked a sense of Parisian culture, which I feel continues to live on today. A fantastic book if you want to learn about the coming and goings of characters important in 20th century culture and thought.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Niklas Pivic

    This book could be seen as a complement to Sarah Bakewell's seminal At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, where Poiriér has collected a lot of background and information on what some truly exciting persons thought of, did, and how they performed both during and after the Second World War. 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 ho This book could be seen as a complement to Sarah Bakewell's seminal At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, where Poiriér has collected a lot of background and information on what some truly exciting persons thought of, did, and how they performed both during and after the Second World War. 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. Even though it's interesting to hear anecdotes and tidbits, e.g. this one: La nausée was dedicated to “The Beaver,” a word play in English on the name of his best friend, sparring partner, and lover, Simone de Beauvoir. “Beauvoir” sounds like “beaver” in English pronunciation, which is castor in French. In other words, Simone de Beauvoir became for her close friends “Le Castor” by way of English. Le Castor was, just like Sartre, a brilliant thirty-year-old philosophy teacher, though rather more beautiful. They lived together—that is, they lived in the same shabby hotel, the Hôtel Mistral, 24 rue de Cels, just behind Montparnasse Cemetery, though not in the same room. ...the book is a bit more ephemeral than Bakewell's book for just that reason. The book does, however, weave different kinds of resistance against the Nazis together in a very satisfying and informative way, e.g. how people did all they could to hide art from the Nazis: Every museum in the country used the plan of evacuation Jaujard had used for the Louvre, each work being treated in order of artistic and historical importance. By autumn 1939, every single artwork of significance had been put in safekeeping. The news, quite inevitably, filtered out. Raymond Lécuyer, in Le Figaro, wrote of “the exodus of paintings,” praised the dedication of the national museums’ keepers, many of them retired veterans from the Great War, and apologized to his readers for being elusive about the whole operation. He could not be specific, nor could he give names, dates, or places, but he wrote: “May [it] be, however, a comfort for you to know that the world’s art heritage is safe from the scientific enterprises of German barbarism.” Having fulfilled his duty to history, Jaujard retreated to his office in the Louvre overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. He was now bracing himself for the inevitable. It might take months, but the Germans would soon be in Paris, he was certain of that. Jaujard may have been ready but, unfortunately, the French army was not. It was also exciting to hear of how writers joined to resist: One evening at the end of March 1941, Simone de Beauvoir found a note slipped under the door of her hotel room, in Sartre’s handwriting: “I’m at the Café des Trois Mousquetaires.” Beauvoir ran into the street toward the café. Sartre had tricked the camp’s authorities and had been released under a fake identity. He was changed, he could not stop talking. It was not the kind of romantic reunion she had dreamed of. On learning that Simone had signed an affidavit declaring she was not a Jew, he gave her a stern look. And how could she buy food on the black market? Action was the only word he now cared for. Their friend the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was also back in Paris. Together, they organized themselves and federated other writers into a resistance group, Socialisme et Liberté. Simone was surprised at Sartre’s vehemence. During the summer of 1941, they cycled together into Vichy France to establish contacts with potential members south of the Occupation line. However, it seemed that the sticking point was the nature of the resistance action the group would carry out. Sartre favored words over bombs. Not that the end of the war meant that wars were over. Communists and existentialists were fighting, the US disliked Richard Wright so he went to France, and...things were generally a lot more do or die then: That week, Gallimard’s house fascist, Drieu La Rochelle, bumping into a friend on the avenue de Breteuil, near the Invalides, said: “I’ve made my decision, I’m leaving.” A few hours later he was attempting suicide. Gerhard Heller leaped on his bicycle, arrived at his bedside, and whispered in Drieu’s ear: “I’m slipping a passport for you under your pillow.” The passport had a visa for Spain and Switzerland. But Drieu was fixed on a one-way journey to hell. That night, Gerhard Heller packed his Paris diaries of the last four years, together with a manuscript entrusted to him by Ernst Jünger titled “Peace.” He put the documents in a small tin suitcase and set off toward the Invalides, a small shovel in his hand. The air was muggy; Heller could feel the sweat pearling down his brow. He spotted a tree on the esplanade, looked at the distance and angle between the rue de Constantine, rue Saint-Dominique, and rue de Talleyrand, made a mental note, counted his steps, and started digging discreetly. He felt the urge to—literally—bury his Paris life in order to save himself. I dig how the philosophers mostly practiced what they preached: Sartre was known for spending his money freely. Insisting on being paid cash for his work, he liked carrying huge wads of banknotes and always paid at restaurants and cafés, never letting anyone else foot the bill, and left huge tips for the waiters. His generosity was astounding and attracted many friends in temporary or chronic financial difficulty. Sartre would discreetly pay for former students’ abortions, cover the rent of his past and present lovers, make loans to impoverished writers—the people indebted to him were legion. In fact, Sartre had no desire to own anything and, true to his word, never would. Cau quickly realized that his main activity would be to free Sartre from his increasingly busy social life and from all the profiteurs so that he could have long stretches of time during the day to concentrate on his writing. Also: However, for her American tour, and to avoid the humiliation of being taken to a tailor as soon as she stepped off the plane at LaGuardia, as had happened to Sartre, whose threadbare clothes had horrified his American hosts, she needed at least one new dress. She bought one in a little maison de couture, a finely knitted black dress, for the exorbitant price of 25,000 francs (the equivalent of about $1,650 today). She walked back to Sartre’s flat and told him, pointing to her shopping bag: “This is my first concession,” and burst into tears. One of the main strengths of this book is how it contrasts the mundane—if anything was indeed mundane—with the extraordinary. For example, de Beauvoir's endeavour to write what was initially thought to become a neat text: This was not going to be a short and quick essay. She had started researching The Second Sex, a book that would shake the world. Simone had so far lived her life as she pleased by breaking social conventions, so researching this subject was also a journey of self-discovery. She would understand in the process why she fascinated younger women. Her life was a model of emancipation, one that the younger generation aspired to and one that she was going to analyze in great detail, not shying away from sexually explicit content. It's also interesting to read some of de Beauvoir's initial thoughts of Northern America, which subsequently changed, especially with her falling in love with Nelson Algren, which happened later: Talking, drinking, smoking cannabis in Greenwich Village with Wright’s friends, Beauvoir was amazed to discover the chauvinism of the New York intellectuals she met. “Their chauvinism reminded me of my father’s. As for their anti-Communism, it verges on neurosis.” She could not resist taking notes on all the details, the differences, the feelings she experienced. On January 31, 1947, she wrote: “Americans’ politeness and good humor make life so much easier and nicer.” However, she could not help looking beyond the façade: “Yet, I’m starting to find annoying all those imperious invitations to ‘take life on the bright side.’ On every poster, everyone shows their white teeth in a grin that seems to me like tetanus. On the subway, in the streets, in every magazine, those obsessive smiles are chasing me. It is a system. Optimism is necessary to social peace and economic prosperity based on consumption and credit.” The book is like a cut into a decade of a time when many generational and revolutionary ideas and changes occurred within a very short space of time, not least the sexual; bar the feministic movements that were (and are) ongoing at the time, sexuality was not a very locked-down and conservative concept. All in all, this book is a welcome one if you want to have a good glance into a decade of changes. Still, I cannot help but think of Bakewell's excellent book. They complement each other in a way.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Evy Journey

    When I picked up this book, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Its attraction for me resided in three endlessly fascinating words: Paris, Art; and Left Bank. I was also curious what that particular decade was like when a world war destroyed much of Europe. How did people cope with its aftermath? How did they begin to recover from it? What Poirier presents is something like an intimate history of the intellectual ferment and creativity that exploded in Paris after the war. It’s akin to reading When I picked up this book, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Its attraction for me resided in three endlessly fascinating words: Paris, Art; and Left Bank. I was also curious what that particular decade was like when a world war destroyed much of Europe. How did people cope with its aftermath? How did they begin to recover from it? What Poirier presents is something like an intimate history of the intellectual ferment and creativity that exploded in Paris after the war. It’s akin to reading the exhilarating narrative of eagles taking wings after being held in captivity. In Poirier’s words: “Left Bank is a portrait … of the young men and women …who “promised themselves to reenchant a world left in ruins.” And that is exactly what they do. Those writers, thinkers, artists etc. fueled the rebirth of the creative and intellectual life of Paris and the rest of the western world. At the center of that history, we find Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, two brilliant minds who defined not only their era but who also proposed ideas that have endured to this day. The couple lived, thought, worked, and loved (or had sex) freely To make it easier to absorb the dizzying array of characters and events, Poirier includes a timeline and a list of people who figured prominently in the rebirth. In 1945, the Sartre-de Beauvoir team began the publication of a journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times) that was widely praised as “stimulating and thought-provoking.” The seeds of existentialism were being cultivated. In October of that year, Sartre gave a lecture Is Existentialism a Humanism? to a packed, energized audience who rushed out to buy his weighty tome. Thus, was born the cult of existentialism. Sartre’s existentialism: “ … placed men and women at the heart of their lives and that of society. Responsibility for their actions as much as for their inactions, for their commitment or lack of it, was theirs and theirs alone. " De Beauvoir—inevitably, naturally —advocated equality in love and sex for women and asserted a woman’s rights to seek abortion for unwanted pregnancies. She made enemies from among her friends and lovers and the Catholic Church banned the book. But a new era for women had been born. Maybe Existentialism is vague to me precisely because of the freedom it gives people to choose how they live. An existential life is subject to the many interpretations of those who choose it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Pirate

    If it was permitted I would give this six stars. Entertaining, engrossing and educational excuse the alliteration!! I have always enjoyed a world press review on BBC News Channel/World when Agnes Poirier has been on it as there is a twinkle in her eye which others lack -- mischievous perhaps but also perceptive and measured -- and so I have not been let down by this wonderful tome. I don't just laud it out of self-interest in writing about the same era with rather darker tales. There is humour, If it was permitted I would give this six stars. Entertaining, engrossing and educational excuse the alliteration!! I have always enjoyed a world press review on BBC News Channel/World when Agnes Poirier has been on it as there is a twinkle in her eye which others lack -- mischievous perhaps but also perceptive and measured -- and so I have not been let down by this wonderful tome. I don't just laud it out of self-interest in writing about the same era with rather darker tales. There is humour, sublime turns of phrase and anecdotes aplenty as well as wonderful insight into Paris and a quite stunning cast of characters -- the sort of stellar names that if they had been actors would have featured in theose wonderful kitsch diaster movies of the 70's -- both their experiences during the Occupation and Liberation. A splendid mix of home grown talent such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus and for me the less sympathetic Cocteau and those who benefited from the GI programme such as Mailer and others including the fascinating Richard Wright and the chutzpah of Art Buchwald "I was as rich as a French fiddler on the roof' the antipathetic Saul Bellow as well as those who had been there before like Janet Flanner. From Existentialism to the Third Way to the tragic love of Juliette Greco and Miles Davis -- the scene in the restaurant in New York or rather its aftermath is heartbreaking -- to the brutality of Arthur Koestler and the sudden success after years of floundering of Samuel Beckett -- one could say it was his 'Waiting for Godot' moment to achieve success although the author provides an altogether more entertaining reason for the title to do with a snubbed prostitute in Rue Godot de Mauroy. I could go on and on like an Ariston battery powered bunny about the joys of this book and the fascinating passage of the Marshal Plan or the short-loved we are one world citizenship of young American Garry Davis. For me a masterpiece of a book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mike Sumner

    A wonderful book for any lover of Paris and the existentialist movement. Covering the period 1940 to 1950 Agnès Poirier has conducted a jaw-dropping amount of research, complimented with thirty-one pages of notes that amplify much of the text. We learn of those who joined the Resistance, many of them communists, and those who chose to flee France and travel to America, many of them to return at the end of the war. France endeavoured to create a tripartite government with socialists, communists an A wonderful book for any lover of Paris and the existentialist movement. Covering the period 1940 to 1950 Agnès Poirier has conducted a jaw-dropping amount of research, complimented with thirty-one pages of notes that amplify much of the text. We learn of those who joined the Resistance, many of them communists, and those who chose to flee France and travel to America, many of them to return at the end of the war. France endeavoured to create a tripartite government with socialists, communists and Gaullists jostling for influence. Along came Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with their "Third Way" promoting existentialism as the way forward as an alternative to the Capitalist and Communist models for life, art and politics. The world's most original voices at the time came to Paris. The book is full of them: Norman Mailer (who wins a Nobel Prize for Literature), Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Juliette Greco, Alberto Giacometti, Saul Bellow, Arthur Koestler, Irwin Shaw, Nelson Algren (Beauvoir's lover) and Albert Camus, to name a few. The book is chock full of anecdotes with gossipy tales of sex, drugs, high art and low life as we look at buildings that still stand, at inhabitants long gone. A great deal of nostalgia... I loved Left Bank as much as I love Paris.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cordula

    Poirier chronicles the life of the Left Bank and its residents with incredible attention to detail. The book reads like a biography of this particular place and time, and while at its core stand Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, the cast of characters is rounded out with many of their friends, neighbours, conspirators, lovers and foes. Two elements of Poirier's writing intrigued me - framing the Existentialist movement in the Communist vs anti-Communist dichotomy of the emerging Cold War as well as Poirier chronicles the life of the Left Bank and its residents with incredible attention to detail. The book reads like a biography of this particular place and time, and while at its core stand Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, the cast of characters is rounded out with many of their friends, neighbours, conspirators, lovers and foes. Two elements of Poirier's writing intrigued me - framing the Existentialist movement in the Communist vs anti-Communist dichotomy of the emerging Cold War as well as highlighting the experience of post-war Paris for black American writers and artists for whom Paris was a haven from the racism and segregationism of the US. I was somewhat disappointed that Poirier draws few conclusions from this meticulous portrait she paints. She touches on some points, such as the creation of the EU or the young French talent that followed in the footsteps of the Existentialists. However, I felt there was little in the book to explain her fascination with this side of Paris, this era, her choice of whom to include in what capacity (it seems that everyone's name gets at least dropped once or twice) and what lasting impact she felt this era had on our present-day art, philosophy, etc. Poirier does a great job of showing the reader what the lives of this generation of thinkers was like without really telling us too much about them though.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dvora

    Poirier follows the same formula as Mary McAuliffe, that is, going year by year and within each year, discussing all those who were relevant. I don't know if McAuliffe is the first to construct a history this way, but she's the first author I've read who does it. And I must say, she does it much better than Poirier. The method gives you a running history of the place, but a disjointed history of each of the subjects. I found this to be the case in McAuliffe's writing, but I thought it was effect Poirier follows the same formula as Mary McAuliffe, that is, going year by year and within each year, discussing all those who were relevant. I don't know if McAuliffe is the first to construct a history this way, but she's the first author I've read who does it. And I must say, she does it much better than Poirier. The method gives you a running history of the place, but a disjointed history of each of the subjects. I found this to be the case in McAuliffe's writing, but I thought it was effective in that it gave you a good idea of how they all fit in together into the history of Paris at the time. When one was doing this, another was doing that, etc. But with Poirier it is far more disjointed, so much so that it gave me the feeling of when your car jerks back and forth because the fuel pump or spark plugs aren't working properly, and I didn't find it a pleasure to read. Thus I would say that this book is on a very interesting subject, but it is not very well written.

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