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Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  452 ratings  ·  83 reviews
A captivating portrait of those who lived, loved, fought, played and flourished in Paris between 1940 and 1950 and whose intellectual and artistic output still influences us today

After the horrors of the Second World War, Paris was the place where the world's most original voices of the time came - among them Norman Mailer, Miles Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, J
Paperback, 400 pages
Published December 13th 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing (first published February 13th 2018)
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Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can almost resist everything, except, any books about the Left Bank during the 1940s to the late 1950s. Generally, readers/culture addicts are seduced by images of Paris and its culture throughout the years. In a way, it's the conceptual 'Disneyland' for those who don't live there, yet, keep track of its beauty through pictures, movies, and of course, literature. I'm so much in tune to that world that I pretty much started up a press, TamTam Books, just focusing on the Paris post-war years, du ...more
Jay Green
Devoured this in a matter of hours. It would suit readers with a superficial familiarity with and interest in the period and its dramatis personae. Don't expect any great exposition of the existentialists' ideas. It's pretty much a run-of-the-mill journalistic chronology of events based on the autobiographies and biographies of those involved. If you've read Damned to Fame, Annie Cohen-Solal's Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life, and de Beauvoir's autobiographies, there's very little in this that w ...more
Nov 02, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There's no shortage of literature written about the famous Lost Generation of writers who populated Paris in the 1920's, and I have read my share. I was totally unfamiliar with the dynamic society of writers who made Paris their home between 1940 and 1950. This book filled that void in my knowledge about the intellectual society of Paris during that period.

The book unfolds around the circle of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus but the allure of the city and its cafe culture attracted jazz mu
Stephen Goldenberg
Whenever I play that game of choosing a historical period and a place where and when I would most have liked to live then post-war left bank Paris is often my choice. Sitting around in cafes discussing life, politics and literature with the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus or just being a flâneur and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of vin rouge.
This is a very entertaining history of the period. The contrast between Paris during the occupation and the exuberance and intellect
Apr 20, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A mostly chronological smattering of stories involving the writers, artists, musicians, and others who lived through WWII in Paris and the five years after. It didn't feel as cohesive as it could have, but was pretty fascinating all the same. ...more
Alan Teder
A Not-So-Lost Generation

There is such a gust of positive energy in this terrific overview of the artists and writers who either lived in or visited Paris during the years 1939 to 1949. Agnès Poirier makes it all come alive with a thoroughly researched history of these figures of whom many created or received the inspiration for their greatest works during this decade that was spent half in the depths of World War II and half in its post-war recovery.

The caricature sketches on the cover give an i
Lynn Horton
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’ve read quite a bit about the Lost Generation, and this book differs from many others in that it begins with the war, which Poitier (rightly) insists set up the environment of 1940s/1950s Paris.

I found the first third of the book fascinating. The author has a way of crystallizing a time and trends that makes them easily digestible, and it’s apparent that her premise of the war creating the Lost Generation is correct. However, I then bogged down in the daily grind, the details, the seemingly un
Apr 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a long time. As fast-moving, eventful, and thrilling as an epic novel, it is also, first and foremost, a vibrant, skillful, literate and thoroughly researched study of the mythical left bank of Paris, at the time when it became the cultural beating heart of Europe and, maybe, of the world. Philosophers, novelists, playwrights, musicians, singers, painters, aspiring artists of all kinds: everybody seems to meet on the left bank at some ...more
Paul Myers
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A strong story-telling narrative of the fascinating literary personalities of the postwar world on the Left Bank in the 1949s. It puts the lives of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Arthur Koestler into one powerful interwoven story. One understands the relationships between them and possibly the central place Sartre occupied as a result of his prodigious output. The story also puts the existential writers within the context of the political movements of the time and in par ...more
Oct 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not being particularly into existentialist writers I wasn’t sure I would like this book. But it’s more a cultural history of Paris - including the thoughts, emotions, and even gooey gossip of the writers, artists, cinematographers, politicians, etc. who spent their formative years in Paris during and just after the Occupation.
Dan O'Meara
May 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was hooked by this account of a world in political and intellectual turmoil. Simone de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins is one of my favourite novels, and Agnès Poirier's account of the world that de Beauvoir rendered in fiction is the perfect counterpart to that brilliant novel. ...more
Christian Peltenburg-brechneff
Loved the book. Slightly gossipy but knowing a lot about most characters it is a wonderful journey through a world of the past. Not always written as poetic as the writers were but it flows along...anyone who is interested in that time in Paris should pick it up
Nicola Pierce
Sep 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Utterly enjoyable and compelling read about writers, artists and the politically aware in 1940s/50s Paris. It flows like water out of the tap; the research and the attention to detail are made thoroughly accessible thanks to the delicious intelligence and fine writing style of Poirier. A joy to read!
June Nguyen
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I happily devoured myself in discovering the French society through this book. Poirer depicted justly the vibrant intellectual life Paris once inspired the world and shaped modern philosophy.
Feb 22, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Heavily detailed but interesting nonetheless.
Paul "Axl" Hurman
What a phenomenal book! The style it is written in is such a joy to read, and every time it seems like it may be slipping into speculation, there is a footnote to remind you just how well researched this project has obviously been. I absolutely love this.
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I appreciated her attention to Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who went to France to escape racism and participate in Paris’s rich cultural and intellectual life. A fascinating, gossipy cultural history of Paris during and after World War II. There’s lots of information about Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre, but her portraits of expats illustrate why Paris is so captivating for us non-French folk.
Ed Terrell
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, wwii
The Left Bank is a wonderfully well written book, both history and biography. Wandering up and down the streets of Montmartre and the Rive Gauche in post war Paris, you dont just get to glimpse Simone de Beauvoir with her arms around her current beau, but you get to dive into her life, her philosophy, her loves. Sartre and Camus argue over existentialism and Arthur Koestler makes a hit with his fiction. Paris is changing rapidly. Bread lines and rationing are over, and the young in Paris are rei ...more
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A rollicking account of a small, well-documented section of Paris, but re-tread here in one continuous, fizzy, gossipy story.
Karen Adkins
The existentialists were exciting for lots of reasons; their focus on philosophy that responded to the world in all its messiness means that they endlessly attempted to argue about how we ought to live in important ways--our politics, our family relations, our ethics. They also lived their values, for better (renouncing bourgeois ways meant owning little, taking public stands that would cost them) and for worse (renouncing bourgeois monogamy apparently also sometimes means treating sex partners ...more
Mar 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Incredibly immersive writing that truly drew me into the lives of artists during the years of the Occupation if Paris up until the summer of 1949. I also think it really captured what it is to be a creative person pursuing creative goals and dedicated to pushing to boundaries of art in response to current world events, not just as an individual but also as a community.

Minus a star because there were times (I felt) where the central through-line of the chapter/figure was deviated from a little t
Supriyo Chaudhuri
A beautifully written part collective biography part chronicle of times of Left Bank intellectuals and Artists of Paris in the years during and after the war. It is a bold attempt to understand and explain the creative ferment that Paris stood for in those grim years of rationing and reconstruction, through an impressive cast of characters drawn from all over the world, including the GI bill funded Americans and other writers who went to Paris to 'find themselves'. ...more
Jun 12, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book draws no conclusions, but is a succession of juicy tidbits about writers’ personal lives. Too much vital information is left out, too many plot holes, too much tension with no logical release. The writing style is also odd—convoluted sentences, calling historical figures by their first name in one sentence and their last name in the next.
May 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quite fast paced and richly informative in a small number of pages. The gossip element often ran away with me at times, however the entire book evoked a sense of Parisian culture, which I feel continues to live on today. A fantastic book if you want to learn about the coming and goings of characters important in 20th century culture and thought.
Niklas Pivic
This book could be seen as a complement to Sarah Bakewell's seminal At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, where Poiriér has collected a lot of background and information on what some truly exciting persons thought of, did, and how they performed both during and after the Second World War.

Together, in Paris, our band of brothers and sisters created new codes. They founded the New Journalism, which got its official name a decade later but was born then, in the smoky ho
Aug 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone who enjoys books of any hue
If it was permitted I would give this six stars. Entertaining, engrossing and educational excuse the alliteration!! I have always enjoyed a world press review on BBC News Channel/World when Agnes Poirier has been on it as there is a twinkle in her eye which others lack -- mischievous perhaps but also perceptive and measured -- and so I have not been let down by this wonderful tome. I don't just laud it out of self-interest in writing about the same era with rather darker tales. There is humour, ...more
Mike Sumner
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book for any lover of Paris and the existentialist movement. Covering the period 1940 to 1950 Agnès Poirier has conducted a jaw-dropping amount of research, complimented with thirty-one pages of notes that amplify much of the text.

We learn of those who joined the Resistance, many of them communists, and those who chose to flee France and travel to America, many of them to return at the end of the war. France endeavoured to create a tripartite government with socialists, communists an
Poirier chronicles the life of the Left Bank and its residents with incredible attention to detail. The book reads like a biography of this particular place and time, and while at its core stand Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, the cast of characters is rounded out with many of their friends, neighbours, conspirators, lovers and foes.

Two elements of Poirier's writing intrigued me - framing the Existentialist movement in the Communist vs anti-Communist dichotomy of the emerging Cold War as well as
Nov 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Poirier follows the same formula as Mary McAuliffe, that is, going year by year and within each year, discussing all those who were relevant. I don't know if McAuliffe is the first to construct a history this way, but she's the first author I've read who does it. And I must say, she does it much better than Poirier. The method gives you a running history of the place, but a disjointed history of each of the subjects. I found this to be the case in McAuliffe's writing, but I thought it was effect ...more
Edd Simmons
Hollywood famous we see some of these people we hold in high status. I don’t know what else to think about post WW2 thinkers other than revolutionizing modern thought. Reading literature like this eases the heart, but boils the stomach . . . . Going from Beauvoir, Camus, to Sartre you start to wonder about a great love relationship. From Sartre sitting in his chair, and Camus on feet in the field you actually wonder the triangular relationship that brought together Beauvoir’s feminism. And for t ...more
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