Monday, May 28, 2018

Review: Left Bank - Agnès Poirier

If you have ever imagined what it might be to live an intellectual's life in the defiant and heady era of wartime and post-war Paris, pull up a cafe chair, get a good view of the avenue, pour a glass of wine, and commence observing the colorful players in Agnès Poirier's fascinating and a bit dishy Left Bank Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 (Henry Holt & Co., 2018).

Poirier opens with the French preparing for Nazi occupation - the artwork from the Louvre deftly smuggled to clandestine hiding places in the countryside! - then plunges the reader intimately into the lives and loves of such notable figures in literature, politics, art, music and philosophy such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, Americans James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and many others through wartime and beyond. With their fierce intellects, their passionate friendships, and their highly unconventional romantic relationships, Sartre and Beauvoir are at the heart of this book, anchors of a creative network, and of a movement, whose influence extended far beyond Paris.

I was most struck that, in a time of repression and significant material scarcity, these talented writers and artists together nurtured such rich creative and political lives. Their food and wine may have been strictly rationed, but they were called to their work by a different necessity:
"It was the lesson learned from the war: indifference bred chaos. It was time to stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it. To experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchant the world were the new mottos of Paris's young."
It sounds quite noble and idealistic, though the reality of their lives was rather messy (think alcohol/substance use, infidelity, etc.). The author tells their stories through a mosaic of day-to-day details pieced against a backdrop of history, and for me this was both the delight and sometimes the frustration of the book. I was often lost in the specifics, and thought I would have gotten much more from it by starting off with a far better prior knowledge of the players. But I enjoyed learning about these brilliant if often deeply flawed figures, and the history overall. And Left Bank reminds us that the question of the role of the artist during times of political injustice or repression is one that will remain forever relevant.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of Left Bank. Happy reading!


  1. Although I never forget that James Baldwin and Richard Wright were in Europe for quite a long time, it's still a stab in the heart to remember why they were there: their own country couldn't bother to treat them like citizens or with the dignity that should be afforded to all human beings.

    I haven't seen you post in a while! I hope all is well. I closed my Grab the Lapels Twitter account down and opened a new one. I will follow you from that account now.

  2. Great post, and great website. Thanks for the information!


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