This book is a monumental accomplishment.
In the rapids of the Left Bank in the 1940s, some hardcore artistic talent survived the Nazi Occupation and founded the various versions of liberation which still enrich the West today. The case against communism was given indissoluble form; civil or religious authority was required to justify itself and not to depend on traditional allegiance; the right of women to define personal well-being without deference to men was stoked into a set of ever swelling demands; the notion that we are all responsible for the world we inhabit became an unavoidably stark commandment in novels and plays and exhibitions; anti-colonialism loomed out of a shame and into a coherent, continent-altering ideology; sex was recognised as an entertainment and, incipiently, as a politics; the European nations could, it was broached, trade sovereignty in return for peace and prosperity.
This was the decade when the Enlightenment took to the streets and the streets would just never look the same again.
Through the eyes of the big players (Camus, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Picasso, Beckett, Koestler, Merleau-Ponty, Greco…) and through the prism of their relationships (with one another, with students and fans, with American and other European visitors….) we have newsreeled before us the full tumult of those times. And the weave of Ms. Poirier’s writing is tugged tight, so controlled and so colourful that we move smoothly through the sweep of big history to the faits divers of daily Paris (under both Occupation and Liberation) to the birth-pangs of works of imperishable art and to the multiple narratives of personal survival, physical and spiritual – all in a decade when few had the luxury of not having to choose sides. As absolute certainties subsided, “tightrope rhetoric” became the verbal jazz of the committed but understandably hesitant intellectual. How to live? What team to support? What flag to salute?
Some parts of Left Bank are downright fabulous, fabulous like a dark, dark thriller. The paragraphs covering the arrival of General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division into central Paris (passing under the window of the young Maurice Jarre) as well as the sniper-fire that was that day still killing French soldiers and civilians alike (even as General de Gaulle, hero of a very uncertain hour, was preparing to walk down the Champs Elysées) are movingly knit together. It’s a vivid verbal drama-documentary that drives some very grim images into the reader’s head. And the pages on the ravaged prisoners returning from concentration camps like Ravensbruck to the Gare de Lyon do a specially efficient job for any 21st century cynics : nobody could conclude that there were too many dilettante citizens or indolent intello-pseuds hanging around the city of those days. Existentialism was born in the most god-awful maternity unit. Every conversation, every emotional adventure, every draft of a new play… became a way of trying to remove the ruins and build better, more irreversibly modern, times. This was a Paris which gave back to America and the wider world its own cultural version of the Marshall Plan.
If that decade is fading from view now then Ms Poirier is here to draw back the years and remind us how those of us in the liberal, free-thinking West got where we are today. And oh, the writing is frequently so crisp you just want to nibble the corners of the page. About yon bonnie Bank, there will never be a better book than this. Like historians all too rare, the author scrupulously never falls in love with or morally presides over any of her human subjects; for the good of the story, a tone of affectionate detachment dominates. This is the very best discipline.
As you get to the last chapter, you can smell the Sixties sweeping over the hills like the next cloudburst, already overdue.
This is one absolutely sizzling read. The electric pulse of a very potent history pulsates through the prose.
Bravo, Bravo, Bravo.