LEFT BANK: Fear & Loathing In The City Of Lights

(Ernest Hemingway, in a jeep) stopped once more, this time in front of 7 rue des Grands Augustins. Picasso was not in – he was still with Maya and Marie-Thérèse. The concierge asked Hemingway if he wanted to leave something with his note. Without a pause, Hemingway went straight to his jeep and came back with a wooden case full of hand grenades on which he wrote, ‘To Picasso from Hemingway’ and handed it to the concierge.

LEFT BANK by Agnes Poirier is a witty, sharp-edged but not unaffectionate history of the Parisian cultural scene 1940-50.  It is filled with lovely anecdotes like the above.

Also, this was, um, interesting:

Sartre took fame in his stride, not that he looked for it – rather the opposite. This sudden glory felt to him idiotic and a high price to pay. He had wanted to write novels, to be a writer, to be a genius living in obscurity like Baudelaire. Events had decided otherwise and sentenced him to be an outspoken intellectual living in the glare of public attention. Nobody would ever remember what he wrote but only what he was and what he said – in other words, he would be remembered as a public intellectual, not quite the same thing as the great writer he had once wanted to be. ‘From now on, he would put the absolute in the ephemeral, he would lock himself up in the present and in the time he lived in, he would accept to perish entirely with his epoch,’ wrote Beauvoir. What extraordinary clairvoyance and lucidity. Indeed, Les Chemins de la liberté would be his last work of fiction. Sartre would sacrifice himself to commenting and trying to influence the world.

This is exceptionally clear-eyed, cold and well stated.

The book may bear useful comparison with Sarah Bakewell’s excellent AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFE, a book that is notably kinder to everyone (except Heidegger) than Poirier’s.  Poirier observes many of the players with a somewhat jaundiced eye – her distrust of the dancing phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty is almost palpable, whether he’s roasting Koestler or creeping on Juliette Greco.  Poirier’s observations of the women of the Left Bank are generally warm, however, and conducted with a fond detail that admirably fills out the female stories that tend to get erased or subsumed among the Sartres and Picassos and Camus’ of the time.  (What is the plural of a Camus?  Camuses?  Camusii?)  The heroes of the French Resistance in Paris had people of the arts among them, and some died for that, and their stories are worth learning.

Anyway, this book is great.

LEFT BANK, Agnes Poirier (UK) (US)