THE LEFT BANK: Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War by Herbert R. Lottman

THE LEFT BANK: Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War

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Concentrating more on briefly-sketched personalities than on political or literary substance, Lottman (Albert Camus, Detours from the Grand Tour) here chronicles the feuds, conferences, hypocrisies, and heroisms of Parisian writer-activists, 1932-1951--in an unfocused but generally readable and reasonably balanced once-overlightly. First comes a short introduction to early-20th-century Left Bank subculture--its salons, its cafÉs, its people (graduates of Ecole Normale SupÉrieure, refugees, etc.), its camps; and this atmospheric but hectic parade of proper names will probably flummox readers who aren't somewhat familiar with the terrain. The next section, however, is the book's longest and best, as Lottman outlines the complex 1930s love affair between the Left Bank and Moscow: the pacifist, antiFascist Amsterdam/Pleyel movement (""Its structure allowed the Communists to reach heretofore uncommitted people who desired to participate in the fight for peace""); the French/Soviet congresses in Moscow and Paris; the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of flexible, USSR-directed organizers; the ascendancy of the ""fellow traveler"" concept. True, the mildly ironic approach here often de-emphasizes the genuine motives (fear of Hitler, France's economic straits) behind France's leftward shift, leaning more toward a cast of provocateurs and dupes. But, while no less fragmented than the rest of the book, this sequence does boast two figures at center-stage: quintessential fellow-traveler Andre Malraux, alternately engaged and detached, self-dramatizing (his ""memoirs can be described as imaginative""); and especially Andre Gide--a nervous fellow-traveler throughout, then a ""nonperson"" when, after visiting Russia, he publicized the Stalinist oppression about which his colleagues remained silent. With the 1939 Nazi/Soviet pact and invasion, of course, the issues changed radically--so Lottman then switches to a loose survey of writer responses to the Occupation: those who fled South (including Malraux, whose mistress Josette pressured him to avoid politics); those who collaborated, more or less; those who resisted, from an undiluted Communist angle (the Louis Aragon group) or otherwise (Camm, Sartre, Combat). And, finally, there's the postwar period--with sketchy treatment of much fascinating material: the debate (punishment vs. forgiveness) over treatment for literary collaborators; the break between independent intellectuals and the Communist Party (with its new hard line from Moscow); the new anti-Communism of Malraux, Koestler, et al.; Camus' anti-Staliniam; and Sartre's failure to find a ""third way"" between Stalinism (with its notorious labor camps) and western imperialism. Lottman never stays with any one figure here long enough for dramatic involvement; nor does he dig deeply into the thorny political textures--especially those familiar to Sartre/Beauvoir followers. But, though too disjointed for neophytes and too superficial for the knowledgeable, this episodic study will provide those in between with an informative overview, some gracefully written vignettes, and (via Lottman's detailed source-notes) ideas for further reading.

Pub Date: March 29th, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin