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Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of…

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

by Agnès Poirier

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596283,989 (4.71)12



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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Enjoyable, well-researched cultural history of Paris from 1940-1950. The book is smoothly written -- easy to digest and written with a good eye for the telling moments and details of its dozens of characters. The book tells of the doings of a truly rich group of thinkers and artists gathered in Paris -- though it is more a description of how did what when, with whom, than it is any kind of analysis of what the work meant. This is not criticism, it is light cultural history focused on personalities.

De Bouvier and Sartre are at the center of the book, but it ranges widely. Poirier makes a shrewd choice in beginning in 1940, and thus including the occupation in her story. Most histories of this sort I have read either tell the story of the occupation, or of the years that followed. Poirier is convincing that the story of the years that follow depends on the experience of the years before.

The book provides a real sense of what it was to live in Paris in the post-war years if you were of a certain artistic bent with certain ambitions. It won't tell you in any depth what existentialism is, for example, but it will tell you the way of life and the milieu of those thinking about existentialism.
  Capybara_99 | Aug 29, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Poirier's book is an exhaustive (and exhausting) cultural history of the Left Bank during the 1940s, from the German occupation of World War II through liberation and the birth of existentialism and the Fourth Republic, told chronologically through the eyes of its denizens both famous (Sartre and Beauvoir, Hemingway, Picasso, Beckett, Wright, Mailer) and less well-known (Jacques Jaujard, who arranged to hide French art masterworks throughout the country during the war, deserves to be better known). The second half of the decade was a heady time when the world looked to Paris for cutting edge ideas in art, literature, journalism, cinema, philosophy, and politics, and Poirer vividly captures the spirit and dynamics of the time and place. In short, thanks to Poirier's account, you get what all the fuss was about. Though not a political history, her account of the politics of the time is more cogent than the tales of sex, drugs, and jazz, which (appropriately, perhaps) tend to be more gossipy in tone. If there's a flaw, it's that all the drinking, the bed-hopping, the partner-swapping, the leaving the country and coming back lend an inevitable sameness to the narrative. (Poirier's footnotes are extensive, though, so there's no doubt it all happened as she reports.) As such, this nevertheless fascinating and valuable book is perhaps best read in short bursts.
  boodgieman | Jul 26, 2018 |
I won an Advance Readers Copy in a GOODREADS giveaway sponsored by Henry Holt. ( )
  tenamouse67 | Jul 22, 2018 |
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=wjHlZkusVFc
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=wsp0t8xVQoU&list=PLG-N0xfojjNqLc3uEhya30PLNKAOqIqgN
Dizzy Gillespie Live in Paris at Salle Pleyel February 28, 1948 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CKSVsK0oyI
Miles Davis & Tadd Dameron Quintet Live at Salle Pleyel, Paris International Jazz Festival May 8, 1949 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL_Sqwkbys8

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.

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. ( )
1 vote alanteder | Jun 1, 2018 |
Before reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and all that crowd. This highly entertaining book dropped me right into their lives, their ideas and their times. It's superb on the personalities and jealousies of this social whirlwind, also touching on their enormous influence on us today. ( )
1 vote ColinCampbell | May 29, 2018 |
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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, 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."--Dust jacket.… (more)

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