A detailed chronicle of a decade alive with intellectual and political ferment.
London-based journalist Poirier (Touché: A French Woman’s Take on the English, 1997), a panel member of the BBC’s weekly program Dateline London, 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. While some of her cast of characters (Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier) have minor roles, others are more prominent, notably Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, along with their many lovers. The decade saw the publication of some of the most influential books of the 20th century, including Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which catapulted the philosopher to international fame; de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which became a bible for feminism; Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which revealed the author’s bitter disillusionment with communism; and Samuel Beckett’s iconoclastic play Waiting for Godot. These writers, and many others, shared their ideas in print—in the journals Les Temps Modernes, founded by Sartre and de Beauvoir; and Combat, edited by Camus—and also when they met at cafes, bars, restaurants, galleries, and theaters. Living in cheap hotel rooms or chilly apartments, they spent little time at home. Romantic liaisons were as passionate as debates over the future of Europe. “For Paris existentialists,” Poirier writes, “friendship seemed as complicated as love. Fallings-out and reconciliations came in quick succession, politics and sex playing a central part.” By 1948, Paris had become “the capital of sin and moral ambiguity,” attracting hordes of Americans (Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, James Baldwin), some funded by the GI Bill.
An animated, abundantly populated history of dramatic times.