Agnès Poirier is the author of the new book Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50. Her other books include Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Observer, and The Nation. She lives in Paris and London.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the literary world in Paris in the 1940s in your new book?
A: Very good question! Originally, I had planned to study 1944-1954, the immediate post-war, and I did research this period for 18 months, but then, when I started to write, I found myself in front of a dilemma: how can one start in 1944 without evoking at length the four previous years! Impossible.
I had to start in fact in 1939. All my "characters" would not have become who they are without those crucial four years. Also, when I reached 1950, I had already written around 800 pages, i.e. twice what my publisher had in mind, so we thought, let's keep it to a decade: 1940-1950. And I cut the manuscript down to a dense 350-400 pages (the UK edition is 400 pages long).
Q: The book includes a huge cast of characters. How did you choose which ones to focus on most prominently?
A: There were far more characters in the original and too long version of the book! So I had to lose some very colorful ones. However, there were some I couldn't part with, among them, Jacques Jaujard who opens the book, the saviour of the Louvre Museum, and Irwin Shaw, the writer and screenwriter.
I wanted a mélange of well-known figures I couldn't ignore (Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, for instance) with forgotten figures such as Janet Flanner, Art Buchwald, Theodore H. White, and unknown ones such as Edith Thomas. And of course I couldn't do without Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright.
It is an eclectic mix which mirrors my inter-disciplinary taste. I was charmed by every one of them, sometimes surprised and irritated, in different ways, (Saul Bellow is a very contrarian character, for instance). I had their pictures pinned on my wall while I wrote the book. I felt their presence, or their spirit.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: That memory and truth are decidedly a murky business! And that talking to survivors and getting their testimonies is not a guarantee of historical accuracy. Facts only are reliable but then every one has a different take on them, a different interpretation. Truth is somewhere in the mist. This is why I wrote that "Left Bank" is a historical reconstruction based on facts.
Q: Is there a modern-day equivalent to Paris’s cultural life during this period?
A: Yes, there is but then it is to be found a little everywhere in Paris and in its suburbs too. It is not as geographically intense and focused as it was then. This is why postwar Paris's Left Bank was such a remarkable place to live in. So many Nobel and Pulitzer prizes concentrated on just a few streets!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Am back to writing about and commenting the news (Mostly European news, political and cultural) in print and for radio and television. Am waiting to see if Left Bank finds a readership before embarking on a similar adventure. It is a lot of work but a wonderful journey, one which I'd love to repeat.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: (That I think Brexit is madness !)
--Interview with Deborah Kalb