Book review: Agnes Poirer's tale of intellectualism and art in Paris

From Jacques Jaujard’s heroic efforts to preserve the artworks of Paris from the Nazis to the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, this is an effervescent history of a great city

circa 1950:  A crowded pavement cafe in a Paris street in springtime, with the Pantheon in the background.  (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
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Left Bank: Art, Passion and Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950

Agnes Poirer, Bloomsbury

Agnes Poirer's Left Bank: Art, Passion and Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 begins with a cinematic retelling of the story of how France's treasure of art survived the Nazi invasion.

It is to the resourcefulness of Jacques Jaujard, the 43-year-old deputy head of the French National Museums in the run-up to the Second World War, that the Mona Lisa owes its existence today. As the likelihood of a German invasion grew, Juajard initiated an evacuation of France's national public art collection. The legend of General Joseph-Simon Gallieni commandeering taxis to move his troops to Marne during the First World War has acquired, through repetition, the veneer of verisimilitude.

What Jaujard did in 1939, Poirier shows, was truly heroic. He requisitioned a flotilla of 203 vehicles to transport about 4,000 works of art. The pieces were graded by importance: a yellow circle for valuable ones, a green circle for major items and a red circle for the most precious paintings. The Mona Lisa, encased in white, bore three red circles and was smuggled in a custom-fitted ambulance. The works were secreted in manor houses throughout the country. Allied bombers were subsequently given secret co-ordinates showing places they should not bomb. The French state, notorious for its centralising impulses, collapsed; the heritage of France was preserved by its anonymous men and women.

The Nazi conquest that ensued was swift. Hitler, still carrying the bruises of the gratuitous humiliations that the French had so unremittingly inflicted on Germany in the aftermath of the First World War, took a triumphant tour of Paris in June of 1940.

Poirier, a Paris-born journalist based in London, skilfully evokes life in her native city under Nazi occupation. Paris was no Warsaw, but the distinction would scarcely have mattered to the Jews, who were the first to be singled out for abuse, persecution, and annihilation. Parisians on the whole were restricted to 1,300 calories of intake a day – “enough to survive, not enough to rebel” – and in the bitter winter of 1943, Picasso couldn’t find any coal and Brassai built a hut inside his living room.

How, after being reduced methodically to nonentity, did Paris rebuild itself? How, as Poirier asks, did it “regain such a high cultural standing so soon after the war?” She answers by introducing us to  a dazzling cast of characters who had in common “the experience of war, their brush with death and elation of the Liberation of Paris”.

Collectively, Poirier contends, they “re-enchant[ed] a world left in ruins”. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are Poirier’s protagonists; Albert Camus, measured purely by the number of mentions he receives here, must rank as the deuteragonist. Their lives are braided together with the glamour and allure supplied by an assortment of writers, musicians, designers, editors and actors. James Baldwin, Robert Wright, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller blossom in a city that, transcending the strictures of race, sways to the sounds of New Orleans jazz.

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Alas, London, in contrast, is dismissed as a drab little backwater where nothing was happening. "It was true", Poirier writes, "that London had withdrawn from intellectual debates". The basis for this sweeping judgment? A pair of articles by the solipsistic British communist Philip Toynbee in Sartre's journal Les Temps modernes. Britain had just elected a radical social-democratic government, withdrawn from India and inaugurated the most ambitious healthcare system in its history. These were no ordinary achievements.

Poirer reveres Sartre and de Beauvoir, and there isn’t an eructation of theirs that isn’t given admirable consideration here. But it is possible to magnify their mystique and overlook their failures. Invited in 1952 to condemn the execution of 11 Jews after a communist show trial in Prague, Sartre demurred because he feared that the “problem of the condition of the Jews in the People’s Democracies” might “become a pretext for propaganda or polemic” against socialism.

Poirier ends her book by identifying the European Union as the legacy of the Left Bank Paris she has documented in the preceding pages.

The man behind the idea of a coal and steel community that culminated in the EU, the diplomat Jean Monnet, appears for the first time in the book's very last pages. His connection to the world Poirier has detailed is tenuous and the conclusion feels rushed. Still, for all this, Left Bank is an effervescent history of the cultural and intellectual life of a great city.

Left Bank: Art, Passion and Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950

Agnes Poirer, Bloomsbury