Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris

by Agnes Poirier

In December 1944 Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Never were we freer than under the German Occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. … They deported us en masse. … And because of all this we were free.”

Sartre spent nine months as a prisoner of war, but after his release in 1941 he spent the Occupation in Paris, replacing a Jewish professor at the Lycée Condorcet. He described the courage to resist suffering as “the secret of a man” and insisted that, since the dangers of the Resistance were shared, the Resistance was a true democracy “for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.”

Sartre’s not entirely straightforward remarks indicate the complexities of the French wartime experience and the accommodations made by many who lived through the four years of Nazi occupation in France. In her entertaining account, Agnes Poirier shows how a loosely connected group of Left Bank writers, philosophers and their lovers came to terms with les années noires, emerging in 1945 with a new philosophy of radical freedom, which they called the Third Way, as an alternative to the communist and capitalist models for life, art and politics.

Sartre and his lover Simone de Beauvoir, who launched their magazine Les Temps modernes at the end of the war to give voice to these ideas, take centre stage. The cast also includes Albert Camus, Boris Vian, Arthur Koestler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Americans Saul Bellow, Miles Davis and Richard Wright. Alongside discussions about art and politics there are drugs, alcohol, broken friendships and sexual betrayals. Reading this account it is hard not to conclude that women in this circle were, mostly, treated badly. Albert Camus, resenting the domesticity he felt was imposed on him after his wife Francine gave birth to twins in 1945, spent time with the young actress, Maria Casares. Both he and Sartre were also attracted to Koestler’s girlfriend, the exquisite Mamaine Paget. Koestler always insisted on “no children”, which did not make Paget happy. Camus was resentful that he had not insisted on such a pact, which, he claimed, might have given him more time for writing. In Poirier’s view men like Koestler, Camus and Merleau-Ponty (who refused to divorce his wife for his lover Sonia Brownell) “crushed many lives around them”. She gives a detailed account of the affair between the writers Édith Thomas and Dominique Aury, both résistantes, the former communist, the latter from the extreme right, which ended in seduction after months of platonic friendship.

Poirier’s Left Bank is filled with passionate love affairs and equally intense discussions about the nature of freedom, often alongside each other and set against a background of shortages: at a time of coal rationing, the warmest place was often bed. Not only coal but basic foodstuffs were in short supply; when Camus went to New York in 1945 he returned with a crate of sugar, coffee, powdered eggs, rice, chocolate, flour, baby foods, canned meat, soap and detergent.

Beauvoir, whose ground-breaking The Second Sex was published in 1949, emerges as a writer of more lasting significance than her lover; Sartre’s existentialism was a philosophy dismissed by veteran New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner as “modish”, and which Mamaine Koestler found puzzling.

Claude Lanzmann, the legendary filmmaker and journalist who died earlier this year, entered this charmed circle aged 20 in 1945 and was briefly Beauvoir’s lover. His words seem to sum up the intoxicating period: “Was it the weight of the war on my too young shoulders? Was it the precarious equilibrium of those years between life and death? This new freedom of mine meant that I needed to prove my own existence with sometimes gratuitous acts.” Poirier does an excellent job of illustrating the ambiguity of this equilibrium.

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