Poirier’s approach is cinematic ... There is incident and sexual intrigue on every page. Poirier spins several plates of the story at once ... Poirier moves easily between Paris, London and New York. She deftly assembles her characters in Brooklyn and Bloomsbury ... At times I did lose track of the dizzy sexual ronde and its various ménages à trois, quatre, cinq ... Poirier gives a useful cast of characters at the front of the book (I do like a crib), also a chronology and an annotated map of who lived, loved and danced where ... One small complaint: we never really get to the bottom of the significance of the Left Bank. We take it for granted that Rive Gauche stands for cool, alternative, bohemian. But why there and not the Right Bank, or Montparnasse? The introduction needs a beginners-start-here explanation of what combination of geographic, economic, social, historic, political and architectural circumstances made the Left Bank such a crucible of experimentation. Other than that, Poirier’s hugely enjoyable, quick-witted and richly anecdotal book is magnifique.
Carefully combing through an impressive amount of material, Poirier assembles the history of a decade in Paris as she tries to explain how these figures came to loom so large ... Poirier loftily extols the way Dior 'reintroduced glamour and luxury,' the way he 'invented a new sexy silhouette,' reminding us that Hollywood stars demanded to be dressed by him. This is typical of the way the breathless mythology of the era, to which none of us are immune, can obscure the way we see it. Poirier buys into the 'glamour and luxury' at moments like these, but who can really blame her? ... Far from romanticizing the American expat community, Poirier gives us some unflattering portraits of visiting writers ... As group biographies go, Left Bank lacks the weightiness of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. But Poirier excels on a different level, going just beyond the shallows without venturing into the depths. And it’s here that we can best observe the wonderful material details of history that have accrued beneath the waters.
Left Bank can be seen as the sentimental answer to Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect (1992), a solidly intellectual study of French thinkers between the years 1944 and 1956. Ms. Poirier scarcely tackles intellectual life at all ... The main strength of Left Bank is its political history, but Ms. Poirier lets Sartre off the hook too easily. He might have tried to establish a 'third way' party in 1948, in the form of the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance (it didn’t get far), but by 1954 he was justly seen as a Soviet stooge ... Left Bank is an enjoyable trip around the famous sites, even if it is a bit of a tourist trip.
A career in journalism is hardly a handicap to writing history; from Alistair Horne to Alan Riding, reporters have given us riveting and revealing accounts of France’s fall and occupation. Poirier? Not so much. First of all, her book is littered with mistakes that a desk editor, not to mention her book editor, should have caught ... Poirier repeatedly sinks below the surface, plumbing a deeper level of mistakes and misunderstandings. In her presentation of existentialism, she declares that there 'was no longer any room for complacency and ambiguity' in postwar Paris. Perhaps this was true for complacency, but a student who has taken Existentialism 201 knows that ambiguity was and will always be a basic and brute datum of our lives. Equally botched is Poirier’s depiction of the postwar trial of the writer and Nazi collaborator Robert Brasillach ... the list goes on ... what we get is a pile-up of preening, partying, and priapic Parisians ... a lazy person’s guide to writing history, one that amounts to the arbitrary stringing together of scenes and conversations one has collected, willy-nilly, from a few days of book-combing.
...a riveting, rollicking read through the explosive intellectualism and labyrinthine love affairs of many of the key writers, philosophers and artists of this decade that came to define Paris and the Left Bank ... What Poirier's book provides is not a history of Left Bank thought but of its style—its way of looking at life and love and one's place in a world undergoing profound changes. She illustrates skillfully the attitude, sense, paradigm of these artists and writers, and places it within its larger context. While packed with detail, it's not an in-depth study, given the broad net she casts. A deeper study of how France and the world responded to the Left Bank would be most interesting. Poirier instead focuses on conveying to the reader a sense of how these artists lived their lives. Of especial interest is her discussion of the complicated decisions these writers and artists had to make during the period of Nazi occupation of France ... There was no single, easy way to respond to the complex moral demands made by the war and the occupation, and Poirier does an excellent job of illustrating the complex problems posed by the times.
For those who love to dish about literary figures, Left Bank reads as an erudite and deeply satisfying gossip column, in which each story is more incredible than the last ... Poirier’s writing is both elegant and efficient ... Left Bank is deeply researched, but Poirier’s narrative suffers for its failure to reckon meaningfully with the extent of the war’s horrors, particularly industrialized murder on an unprecedented scale. Poirier occasionally writes with a disconcerting levity, referring to atrocities of the time in grand—and indirect—terms as the 'caprices of history' ... In chronicling the Left Bank, Poirier is more interested in the romance of wartime paradoxes, the tensions of collaboration and resistance, freedom and subjugation, glamour and terror ... Poirier succeeds in constructing a sense of how Paris may have felt during those years.
Left Bank—Ms Poirier’s delightful account of the writers, artists and painters who shared beds, cigarettes and column inches on a few streets in the 1940s—returns frequently to the Café de Flore. Simone de Beauvoir used it as her letter-box, its warmth a reprieve from the unheated hotel room she lived in on the nearby rue de Seine. She and Jean-Paul Sartre (pictured), plus their coterie of anti-bourgeois writers and muses, wrote and smoked at its tables, a short step from Sartre’s little apartment on the rue Bonaparte ... the Café de Flore serves as a metaphor for a recurring concern: the alleged evanescence of the French intellectual.
...an exercise in nostalgia, which is arguably the most natural mode in which to write about a city that can sometimes seem to be caught in the aspic of its own very potent legend ... Sartre, along with his life-long paramour Simone de Beauvoir, stands at the centre of Poirier’s book. Around this charismatic pair orbit the other stars in the Left Bank constellation (writers, artists, models and musicians), in a series of intellectual, political and erotic entanglements whose internecine complexity the author unpicks with great relish and flair.
Agnès Poirier’s engaging romp through the decade in which Paris rose from wartime shame to assert its claims to be world capital of art, philosophy and turtlenecks teems with...vignettes ... De Beauvoir signed a form denying she was Jewish so she could continue teaching in occupied Paris. While she and Sartre were never freer, Parisian Jews were being rounded up by Parisian cops and murdered in Nazi death camps. Celebrity collaborators, too, in on-trend if unwitting existentialist fashion, defined their moral characters through what they did rather than what they thought—and later came up with shameless rationalizations ... Poirier, though, risks soft pedalling these evasions and self-delusions since, ardent Parisienne that she is, she wants to tell a love story. In her narrative, everyone who is creatively or intellectually anyone is seduced by Paris ... The EU could be seen not the way Poirier sees it, as Paris-created bulwark, but as sociologist Wolfgang Streeck envisioned it—a deregulation machine exposing its citizens to capitalism gone wild. I would argue that, were Sartre and De Beauvoir alive, they would share Streeck’s view. But let’s not leave Paris without yielding, just a little, to Poirier’s rose-tinted image of its charms.
Organizing the book chronologically, she follows the lives of artists, writers, musicians, publishers, and performers—mostly French and American—deftly creating 'a collage of images, a kaleidoscope of destinies' from memoirs, histories, biographies, and the writers’ own prolific work ... An animated, abundantly populated history of dramatic times.
The tight focus on high-profile figures and relative absence of working-class Parisians results in the work feeling distant and limited, almost decontextualized from daily struggles in the city. Nevertheless, Poirier humanizes the extraordinary men and women of the Left Bank, unraveling the complicated stories behind a breathtaking number of literary, philosophical, and artistic masterpieces in a singular, heartbreaking era.