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An incandescent group portrait of the midcentury artists and thinkers whose lives, loves, collaborations, and passions were forged against the wartime destruction and postwar rebirth of Paris.
In this fascinating tour of a celebrated city during one of its most trying, significant, and ultimately triumphant eras, Agnès Poirier unspools the stories of the poets, writers, painters, and philosophers whose lives collided to extraordinary effect between 1940 and 1950. She gives us the human drama behind some of the most celebrated works of the 20th century, from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Saul Bellow's Augie March, along with the origin stories of now legendary movements, from Existentialism to the Theatre of the Absurd, New Journalism, bebop, and French feminism.
We follow Arthur Koestler and Norman Mailer as young men, peek inside Picasso’s studio, and trail the twists of Camus's, Sartre's, and Beauvoir’s epic love stories. We witness the births and deaths of newspapers and literary journals and peer through keyholes to see the first kisses and last nights of many ill-advised bedfellows. At every turn, Poirier deftly hones in on the most compelling and colorful history, without undermining the crucial significance of the era. She brings to life the flawed, visionary Parisians who fell in love and out of it, who infuriated and inspired one another, all while reconfiguring the world's political, intellectual, and creative landscapes.
With its balance of clear-eyed historical narrative and irresistible anecdotal charm, Left Bank transports readers to a Paris teeming with passion, drama, and life.
"Carefully combing through an impressive amount of material, Poirier assembles the history of a decade. . . .As Poirier hops across arrondissements, she manages to create the feeling we're peeking into the windows of her subjects, looking at buildings that still stand, at inhabitants long gone." -The New York Times
"Poirier's hugely enjoyable, quick-witted, and richly anecdotal book is magnifique." -The Times (London)
"Weighty thought and earthy behaviour are the twin engines behind Agnès Poirier's briskly entertaining ride through France's most mouvementé decade." -The Sunday Times (London)
"Left Bank reads as an erudite and deeply satisfying gossip column, in which each story is more incredible than the last." -The New Republic
"Poirier does not miss a trick in her lively accounts of the intense discussions and adulterous liaisons that centred on the Café de Flore or the nearby nightclub Le Tabou; but her real achievement is to contextualise these politically and culturally. . . .An entertaining and well-written story" -The Spectator
"Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank is a remarkably exhilarating read." -Literary Review (UK)
"[A] delightful account of the writers, artists and painters who shared beds, cigarettes and column inches on a few streets in the 1940s" -The Economist
"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." -The Financial Times
"A detailed chronicle of a decade alive with intellectual and political ferment. [Poirier] offers a gossipy, well-informed cultural history of her native Paris, beginning in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war, and ending in 1949, with the Marshall Plan in effect to help the continent recover. 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." -Kirkus
"I loved this dramatic reconstruction of the complicated and passionate life of Left Bank intellectuals during the Nazi occupation and Poirier does not shy away from exposing the joy and pain of experimental living or from exploring with sensitivity the moral ambiguity of living through the Occupation, especially complex for journalists and writers. I found it compulsive reading as the book gathers momentum with vivid descriptions of the post-war uncertainty." --Anne Sebba, author of Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation
"A tour de force, Left Bank weaves together so many people, ideas, trends, occurrences, and above all Parisian places, into a tapestry of fascinations – a distillation of the essence of an amazing time...the best of its kind I have ever read." --A.C. Grayling, author of The God Argument
"A brilliant recapturing of a fascinating era. Artistic and intellectual Paris -- 1940-50 -- comes vividly and memorably alive in these pages. A tremendous achievement". --William Boyd