If you were to ask today, “Where is the intellectual and artistic capital of the world?” I would guess several answers would be offered and debated: New York? London? Berlin?
Or perhaps it is now a meaningless question in an increasingly global society where ideas and movements can be communicated at the tap of a keyboard, and artistic exchanges between East and West, North and South are seen as both desirable and commonplace.
But had you asked that question in the first half of the 2oth century, there would have been only answer: Paris.
Paris was the intellectual, artistic and cultural centre of the world, a city to which thinkers, writers and artists flocked in their droves. This is a rich picking ground for Agnes Poirier’s thoroughly researched and endlessly anecdotal book, Left Bank.
Choosing just one decade, the 1940s, she sets about mapping the life of the city that would change the face of modern living.
No, that is not too big a claim – second phase feminism has its birthplace in 1940s Paris, and so does existentialism, that much quoted and misunderstood philosophy that underpins so much of our current thinking. Let me divert, for a moment, to offer a definition:
“Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs and outlook.
And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.” (allaboutphilosophy.org)
The father figures of existentialism were Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter occupying a solid and central figure at the heart of this book. Intellectual life revolved around Sartre and his ally, friend and sometime lover Simone de Beauvoir.
Living in cheap hotel rooms, owning few possessions, writing, debating and holding court in cafes because they were warm, Sartre and de Beauvoir offered not just intellectually challenging ideas but a lifestyle that embodied the new freedom. Part of this was sexual liberation, with both taking multiple lovers.
It is to de Beauvoir that feminism owes a significant debt. It started with an epiphany:
“It was a revelation. This world was a masculine world, my childhood was nourished by myths concocted by men, and I hadn’t reacted to them in the same way I would have done if I had been a boy. I became so interested that I gave up the project of a personal confession in order to focus on the condition of woman.”
The resulting book, The Second Sex, would shake the world.
While Sartre and de Beauvoir were at the heart of intellectual life in that decade, they were by no means its only cast. Camus, Samuel Beckett, Picasso, Giacometti, Miles Davis, Saul Bellow, Arthur Koestler, Norman Mailer, Juliet Greco, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Cartier-Bresson… the list of famous seems almost endless, and that is before we start on the many gifted and talented people who did not become household names.
The very extent of this cast means that Poirier has an enormous amount of material, and the pages and pages of sources at the end of the volume testify to her diligence in ensuring accuracy.
This is a marvellous introduction to an age of change, from a Paris emerging from the deprivations of its war and immediate post-war years, to the city that by the end of the decade was attracting thinkers and artists from all over the globe. Americans, in particular, were pulled inexorably to its vibe.
From philosophy and feminism to painting, sculpture and jazz, Paris had established itself as the epicentre of the new world.
Poirier does two things exceptionally well – she provides a historical overview, and enlivens it with anecdotes that bring these names on pages to life. de Beauvoir chooses to live out of a suitcase in a tiny hotel room despite her fame; Bellow develops his prose after watching water trickling down a gutter; Waiting For Godot is named after an incident in the red light district of Rue Godot.
And there are the relatively unsung heroes, like Jacques Jaujard who organised the evacuation of 4,000 works of art for fear of Nazi looting and sent the Mona Lisa out of Paris in the back of an ambulance.
My one reservation about this book is one impossible to redress. The cast of characters is so interesting and the source material so rich that no sooner does the reader get interested in one story than Poirier moves on to another to provide the overview she intends.
There is an element of frustration then, though the remedy is surely to take Left Bank as a starting point and follow up particular interests sparked here with dedicated books on individual characters. I find it difficult to imagine better introductions than Poirier offers here.
Left Bank: Art, Passion And The Rebirth Of Paris 1940-1950
Author: Agnes Poirier
Publisher: Bloomsbury, biography, literary figures, social history