One is not born but rather becomes a Parisian

One is not born but rather becomes a Parisian

Mon 12 Feb

LEFT BANK: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 by AGNES POIRIER. London, Bloomsbury, 2018.

Agnès Poirier's fifth book opens in a state of war. On 1st September, 1939, Germany invades Poland. Two days later France and Great Britain declare war on Germany. Many artists and writers, together with foreign nationals begin to leave Paris for safer climes. Poirier excels in mixing detail with historical fact and has an eye for humour. Try this as an example:

On June 22, [1940] while armistice negotiations were finalized at Compiègne, Henri Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner and sent to Stalag VA in Ludwigsberg in Germany with the identification number KG845, along with another twenty-three thousand French prisoners. Jean-Paul Sartre had been captured the day before, his thirty-fifth birthday, and was to be transferred to Stalag XIID near Tier. In Arcachon, getting some fresh air on the seafront, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Duchamp overheard a fat lady with gold rings on every finger welcoming the armistice: “Ah, we’re going to be able to eat cakes again.”

Artists, writers and non-nationals were not the only ones to evacuate Paris. It became clear that France was likely to be invaded by Germans when Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed a pact of non-aggression. Jacques Jaujard, (Haut Fonctionnaire of the French Fine Art administration), arranged for the transportation and security of the entire Louvre collection. He commandeered trucks, ambulances, cars and any other form of transport that would ensure the safety of the collection. The day came when Count Franz von Wolff-Metternicht, a 40-year-old aristocrat and a scholar of Renaissance art and architecture; appointed head of kunstschutz (art protection) for the Rhineland and Occupied France; knocked upon Jaujard’s office door.

"Jaujard wrote in his diary that Metternich, on learning that the Louvre was empty, looked almost relieved."

 There were, of course, other cultured Germans in the Occupation, notably Gerhardt Heller, “[n]ever a fully fledged Nazi Party member, he had not taken the oath to Hitler, whom he found repulsive”. Heller was assigned to the literary section of the propaganda unit. He was dangerously liberal, protecting as best he could the writers of the Left Bank, and Gallimard, the main publisher of their work. Poirier quotes Herbert R. Lottman,

In a sense [Heller] had joined the Left Bank literary scene, if in a new and strange manner. If so many literary stars of the pre-war anti-fascist left wing survived the German years unharmed, Heller and the mentality he represented deserve some credit.

 It is consoling to think of virtuous action on behalf of reluctant occupants; but just in case you thought it safe to go back in the water, Poirier reminds us:

In Paris there was… an enemy, one of the vilest nature, but it was faceless. It was not the German officer who offered his seat on the métro to women and elderly people, it was not the lost German soldier who politely asked his way, it was not the simple German soldiers who had become part of the furniture. Those who actually saw the face of that enemy rarely came back to tell the tale. Sartre compared this faceless enemy to an octopus, which would take away the country’s best men at night and made them disappear, as if guzzled up by an invisible monster. ‘It seemed that every day around us, people were silently swallowed from beneath the earth.’ One day you would call a friend and his phone would ring and ring and ring in his empty flat; you would knock at a door, but nobody would come to open it. ‘If the concierge forced the door open, you would find two chairs, close together, in the entrance hall, with German cigarette butts scattered on the floor.’

This sets up neatly the last chapter in the first section of the book – a beautifully drawn account of the allies re-entering Paris, the euphoria and the sheer exuberance of the new freedom, the lifting of four years’ repression, together with darker shades of the recriminations to come. Hemingway enters Paris on his jeep and stops off to meet Sylvia and Adrienne. He hops back onto his jeep to stop off at Picasso’s flat. Picasso isn’t in, so Hemingway leaves him a crate of grenades as a present. At 4:15 p.m., 25th August, 1944, at Montparnasse train station, Dietrich von Chorlitz signs his surrender, after disobeying Hitler’s orders to level the city.

There followed the inevitably painful homecoming for those captured by the Germans and lucky enough to have survived. The "disappeared", at least some of them, suddenly reappeared, swapped for Germans interned by the French. On 30th April 1945, Hitler died. A week later Germany surrendered unconditionally.

The occupation ended, French intellectuals turned to journalism. The French press was filled with editorialized pieces rather than plain reportage. This made news highly politicized, cerebral, intelligent, literary, and often personal, which Parisians welcomed.

French artists returned to Paris and foreign artists began to arrive. Philosophers and writers began to review the arts in general and painting in particular. Paris began to express its freedom in and through the arts.


1st October 1945 was to be the occasion of the publication of issue one of Les Temps modernes, with Sartre as its director. The journal was to be “a laboratory of new ideas and a talent scout rolled into one”. In the following year, Sartre would suggest that Simone de Beauvoir write a piece on the contemporary condition of women. She thought it an easy task and envisaged a short piece, “Women and Myths”, which opened with the sentence, “He is The Absolute, and she is The Other.” 

October 1945 also saw the publication of the first two volumes of Sartre’s trilogy, The Roads to Freedom, and de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others. Existentialism was born. The philosophy of existence, as Sartre and de Beauvoir described it, angered the bourgeoisie – it attacked their complacency and demanded their engagement; it angered the Catholics – it was an atheistic philosophy and encouraged extra-marital and promiscuous sex; and it angered the communists – it was a philosophy that placed all value on the individual and the subject’s actions, rather than on a commitment to communal values and the greater good. Moreover, it was extremely attractive to the younger generation. Existentialism became an international phenomenon, with Sartre soon giving a lecture tour of the USA, and other countries.

Poirier now turns to the new flow of writers coming into Paris. Richard Wright, a black American writer was invited to Paris, at the behest of the French Ambassador to Washington, the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss. In Paris, Wright attended an editorial meeting of Les Temps modernes and was incorporated into the team to address American writing and discuss race relations in the US. Tellingly, Wright found himself in Paris as an American, no longer defined by his race.

On one particular night in Paris, Poirier gives us Arthur Koestler and Mamaine, his girlfriend, dancing with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Francine, his wife. There is the attraction Mamaine exerts on both Sartre and Camus, the mutual attraction of de Beauvoir and Koestler, excessive amounts of alcohol, and eventually, at daylight, Sartre and de Beauvoir staring at the Seine from Pont Neuf. Whilst weeping, they wonder why they don’t just throw themselves in. After two hours sleep Sartre gave a lecture at UNESCO headquarters.

Poirier does a good job, showing something of the thinness of existentialism, whilst also showing how it grew out of the deep pain endured by the French, and particularly the Parisians’ experience of the occupation. For existentialism’s great claim is that, under all circumstances we must engage with our lives and we must act so as to establish our individual freedom. This thesis, by all accounts, seems to have loosened the ties by which family life was bound up by the sexual mores of an oppressive culture. Heterosexual promiscuity, homosexuality between men and between women, bisexuality, and the ménage à trois became an expression of such freedom. Poirier quotes the young poet, Anne-Marie Cazalis:

I had never thought one could live so freely. Simone had earned the right to live like this, and thanks to her, this freedom was given to my generation, like a gift.

From London, the writer Cyril Connolly opined that Paris,

blazed with intellectual vitality and confidence, its writers galvanized by four humiliating years of occupation, now stood ready to ignite the torch that would light the way to freedom, choice and rational reform.

Camus renounced communism, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir. But Les Temps modernes continued to publish pieces by Merleau-Ponty, defending communism, and attacking Koestler, who had himself renounced Stalinism. Poirier deftly returns us to the night of drinking and dancing and we find that Mamaine stayed on in France for a week in which she had a fling with Camus. Meanwhile, Merleau-Ponty was seeing an old flame of Koestler who had undergone a backstreet abortion at considerable risk and in great pain. Thus, the ideas were often less idealistic than they first appeared, tinged with the petty jealousies, the rancour, and the personal sensitivities that also helped to shape the work and the political allegiances that followed.

Poirier notes the gloominess of London, when compared to Paris. London was grey and stuffy and, notwithstanding Connolly’s Horizon, it was no match for Paris. England never has taken culture seriously, at least when compared to France. Of America, de Beauvoir, on her tour, reported back,

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.

On visiting Harvard, she observed that philosophy was taught as a hard science. "As a result, the academic life seemed ‘divorced’ from the intellectual life of the nation… There does not seem to be any bridge between culture and life."

The difference between affluent America and impoverished Europe proved fertile for the development of the Cold War. The Marshall Plan sought to provide funding for countries in Europe to establish stable economies, and to permit social and political conditions in which free institutions could exist, thereby encouraging countries to shun communism in favour of a free world. Stalin reacted by refusing any such funding on behalf of the Soviet Union and its allies in the Eastern bloc. The Iron Curtain was drawn.

If the Cold War polarized the communists and the left-leaning but conservative Catholic church in France, as it polarized America and Stalin’s Soviet Union, then the Left Bank intellectuals searched for a third way. Camus, de Beauvoir, Sartre and Koestler all fell foul of the communists and their powerful presence in the media. Camus and Sartre were both signatories on a petition to find a “Third Way”. Left Bank intellectuals were searching for a solution to Cold War enmity.

The idea of a united and independent Europe as a counter-power to the bloc politics was emerging, a Europe that would adopt non-Communist socialism and divest itself of its colonies.

At the beginning of 1948, Sartre decided to put his weight behind a new party, Rassemblement Démocratique et Révolutionnaire (RDR) (the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance). “The idea was to unite the non-Communist left under one banner and to promote an independent Europe as a bridge between the two blocs the USA and the USSR”. Sartre was to be the new party’s leader.

At the same time, equally revolutionary, Simone de Beauvoir’s essay, “Women and Myths” grew into a two-volume work entitled The Second Sex. Its influence was, and remains, global; its message shaping what was to become Second Wave Feminism in the Sixties in the USA and abroad.

Poirier explains the influx of Americans to Europe in terms of their administration’s fear of communism. In Hollywood, movie stars were being interrogated and asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” These “trials” were covered in the press throughout France. Hundreds of artists working in Hollywood felt drawn to work in Europe. In Paris, the writer Norman Mailer would stop at a café to read the latest reports. He and his wife were studying at the Sorbonne, entitled to do so by the GI Bill.

30th April 1949 saw the final congress of Sartre’s RDR party. A schism in the party between those who wanted to oppose the communists and those who wanted the Third Way to remain neutral, split a party that had a diminishing membership. It was the end of the RDR. Sartre was reportedly sanguine, writing, “we assassinated the RDR and I left for Mexico, disappointed but serene.” There would be no more direct involvement in politics. He would now concentrate his energies on literature.

Meanwhile the first anniversary of the Marshall Plan was recorded by an American journalist living in Paris and quoted at length by Poirier:

By June 1949 the rough mechanical distribution and payments problems within Europe had been solved: at which point the planners ran into the insoluble problems – one of which was England. Of the first eighteen months of the Marshall Plan it can be written that the USA saved Western Europe and discarded England… In the summer [of] 1949, one could sense that the shove was on. On the weekend of September 17-18, the British dropped the value of the pound from $4.03 to $2.80. I went on Monday 19th, boarding the Golden Arrow out of Paris. But in London, I found that the British had set out on the long road leading off and away from the mainstream of world affairs with complete, affable and cheerful indifference.

Well, there it is. The book will inevitably be compared with Sarah Bakewell’s recent At The Existentialist Café. Bakewell’s book enables the reader to grapple with the ideas of existentialism and phenomenology, whilst being philosophically rigorous. It is a marvellous thing. Poirier’s book does not attempt to compete with it. Rather, it is a very amusing, if sometimes dark, jewel of a book that sometimes reads like highly educated gossip, which is always entertaining. Moreover, the book sparkles with historical incident and well researched information. In a café, Sartre asked Miles Davis why he didn’t ask Juliette Greco to marry him.

“Because I don’t want to make her unhappy,” came Davis’ reply. Poirier rightly connects this to race relations in New York, as opposed to Paris, at the time. It is this use of detail that fills the book with wisdom. As well as this, Poirier captures the mood of the times in lovely vignettes. She mentions Robert Doisneau, one of the press photographers who covered the liberation of Paris. Her writing, to this reader, has the poignancy of Doisneau’s pictures of Paris.

Edward Winters taught aesthetics at University of Westminster, West Dean College and University of Kent. He is published widely on aesthetics and art criticism; and is presently living in Paris, writing a book on everyday aesthetics. 

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