Riparian

Douglas Johnson

  • The Left Bank: Writers in Paris, from Popular Front to Cold War by Herbert Lottman
    Heinemann, 319 pp, £12.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 434 42943 0

When Sherlock Holmes was seeking to elucidate the mystery of the Six Napoleons, he went on a ten-mile drive from Kensington to Stepney, and Dr Watson records that ‘in rapid succession we passed through the fringe of fashionable London, hotel London, theatrical London, literary London, commercial London and, finally, maritime London.’ One may be puzzled at this description and one might have wished that the good Doctor had been more precise in his definitions and delineations. Is it possible to note so exactly these different areas of London?

No such doubts exist for Mr Lottman. There is an area in Paris which is called ‘the Left Bank’ and which is geographically recognisable in relation to the River Seine. But whilst Bretons were to be found around the Gare Montparnasse on the same principle that Irishmen are to be found in Camden Town, because it is within walking distance of Euston for a man carrying two suitcases, the Left Bank has a different kind of identity which is to be interpreted in terms of intellect and aesthetics. It is there that the writers, artists and cultural leaders of France take up residence. It is, in terms of ideas, literary creations and guru-ship, what the Falls Road is for Belfast Catholics.

At first sight this is surprising. As the Duke of Wellington said, because you are born in a stable you are not necessarily a horse, and because you are a writer and publish something and happen to live in a certain area of Paris, which is in any case large and densely populated, you are not necessarily to be described as a Left Banker. There is little meaning in such designations. What, for example, is the significance of politicians living on the Left Bank? President Mitterrand lives in the Rue de Bièvre, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Quais; the former Prime Minister, the Gaullist Michel Debré, lives in the Rue Jacob, just off the Rue Bonaparte and St Germain des Près. Both live in the essential Left Bank. Pierre Mendès-France, the legendary hero of the rational, honest and dedicated Left, lives on the Right Bank, in the Rue du Conseiller Colignon, whilst Giscard d’Estaing, the now rejected and spurned representative of the soft Right, lives not far away. General de Gaulle, in so far as he had a private residence in Paris after 1940, used to operate from the Rue de Solférino, which is Left Bank. President Pompidou had a house on the Ile Saint-Louis (how is that, bank-wise?), whilst Couve de Murville, the most faithful of Gaullists, has always lived on the Left Bank in the Rue du Bac. Is the Left Bank, then, a Gaullist stronghold? One has only to ask the question to see that it is ridiculous. Was it important that Gide lived in the Rue Vaneau, near Jean Schlumberger, who lived in the Rue d’Assas? They had, after all, lived in neighbouring châteaux in the Calvados department of Normandy. They shared Protestant origins. Why should their shared arrondissement and their nearness to the Luxembourg Gardens be of particular significance? André Malraux lived in the Rue du Bac – for ever rendered more attractive by the remark made by the exiled Madame de Staël, that it was this street that she missed most of all – whilst Robert Brasillach lived in the more elongated ugliness of the Rue Lecourbe, not far removed. But when they were in Spain, at the time of the Civil War, they were on different sides, and the books they wrote about the war were in sharp contrast one to the other.

Herbert Lottman quotes Clara Malraux as saying, ‘Revolution means seeing a lot of each other,’ but it is not clear what she meant by that and the dictum is not explained. It cannot have meant that living in the same neighbourhood confers any identity of views or attitudes. Should we put together Françoise Sagan, Bernard-Henri Lévi and Alain Touraine, who are Left Bankers, and place them in opposition to Jean d’Ormesson, Jean-Marie Benoist and Edgar Morin, who are Right Bankers?

Herbert Lottman has a lot to say about cafés and about their importance. He joins those who think that the history of Paris is, in a sense, the history of its cafés, and there is no doubt that the cafés play a large part in the history of French sociabilité. But the very availability of the French café to everyone, in contrast to the exclusiveness of London clubs, considerably reduces its significance in terms of ideas or of intellectual exchange. It would, no doubt, have been a captivating sight to see Picasso hob-nobbing with his famous friends at the Flore and the Deux Magots, then crossing the boulevard to Chez Lipp, before returning to a table at the Flore, but one doubts whether this was much of an intellectual or artistic experience, either for Picasso or for the eavesdropper. For a long time now the Dôme and the Coupole have been filled with people hoping that the famous would drop in rather than with the famous themselves. Perhaps a historian will some day work out when exactly the noise of the traffic made conversation impossible in the cafés. Not long after the Liberation, the historian Pierre Renouvin, when he received at his home in the Boulevard Saint-Germain, used to say that neither he nor his wife were ever inconvenienced by the noise, but he usually had to repeat this several times because his guests could not hear his voice over the endless roar of passing cars. The cafés’ greatest asset in terms of communication was that they had telephones at a time when the French telephone system was notoriously bad. And they were particularly useful for detectives, like Maigret, who sat there for immensely long periods of time, observing suspects and waiting for crimes to mature.

The association of great writers and cafés – a feature now of some collective nostalgia – is not confined to the Left Bank. The largest of the self-styled cafés littéraires used to be on the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, where every customer who spent a certain amount of money was entitled to choose a book from among a long list of authors; and in the period covered by Mr Lottman, people might have preferred to haunt some of the more splendid cafés of the Right Bank in the hope of overhearing a witticism uttered in the plangent voice of Sacha Guitry, or an indiscretion in the piercing whisper of François Mauriac. The Café de la Régence, near the Palais Royal, afforded memories of Voltaire, Napoleon and Alfred de Musset; Harry’s Bar, near the Opéra, resurrected Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Nor need such nostalgia be confined to France: Philip Hope-Wallace at El Vino’s, Dylan Thomas in the Fitzroy and the Yorkshire Grey, W. H. Auden at the Hope and Anchor in Birmingham. Since we cannot all share in the intimacy of the Traveller’s or Le Jockey, we have to find the common terrain of pub and café.

Mr Lottman is on firmer ground when he speaks of the significance of educational establishments within this area. The presence of three important lycées, Louis-le-Grand, Henri IV and Saint-Louis, of the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Polytechnique on the other side of the Mont Sainte-Geneviève, Sciences Politiques at the other end of the Boulevard Saint-Germain), all meant that there was a vast concentration of students and teachers, which gave a certain intellectual tone to the area. Young people in the Twenties were able to pursue their education in Picard’s bookshop: their successors in the Sixties were able to use the Librairie Maspéro as a free reading-room (the basement must have contained the biggest selection of left-wing periodicals to be found anywhere in Western Europe, and if it was never empty, it was even rarer to find someone actually buying one of them). The early days of the cinema also underlined the importance of this area, with the history of film and the French experience of it closely linked to specific cinemas, the Ursulines, the Ciné-Latin (on the Mont Sainte-Geneviève), the Vieux-Colombier, and the cheaper cinemas in the Avenue des Gobelins – it is curious that Mr Lottman does not discuss their influence, which was probably more important intellectually than that of the cafés.

But even here one must not underestimate the divisions that persisted within the Latin Quarter. At the Ecole Normale it was possible for scientifiques not to know littéraires, or for someone not to know those who were in a different year, and it was almost a point of honour not to know any Sorbonnards. A Nor-malien might spend many days without ever going outside the Ecole. If he went to a café it would not occur to him to venture into one of the fashionable establishments of St Germain des Près: he would go to a less pretentious café on the corner of the Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epéé. (When Albert Pauphilet was Director he used to stand at the counter, shoulder to shoulder with his students, not, it was believed, because he sought their company, but because his doctor had forbidden him both the wine and the pâté which he was keen on and which he could discreetly consume in a café where he would meet no one he was likely to know.) Mr Lottman speaks as if the more recent Ecole Nationale d’Administration had contributed to the decline of the Left Bank, by bringing an unwelcome technological slant into a community of literary culture. But ENA, first in the Rue des Saints-Pères, now in the Rue de l’Université, has preserved the true tradition of the area: a large building presenting a blank façade to the world. No one knows what goes on there, and no one seeks to find out. Robert Brasillach recalled that in the Twenties, when he and his colleagues at Louis-le-Grand were preparing for the entrance to the Ecole Normale, which was just up the road, it never occurred to any of them to go and see what life would be like there. People lived in almost hermetically-sealed institutions, and although there might be a move from the one to the other, there was little mixing or fraternising between them. The Left Bank could be a very large area indeed, if one wanted it that way (and not only for the students – it was said that there was a cobbler who lived on the Ile Saint-Louis who, in 1948, had never seen the Eiffel Tower).

Perhaps this fragmentation is the key to the subject. We all know that intellectuals in France are different from those in England. They can usually be identified (not, of course, through living on the Left Bank). The French Communist Party can summon a large meeting of les intellectuels (not held on the Left Bank), just as during the inter-war period the famous actors, the Pitoëff, could invite la jeunesse intellectuelle to a free performance of Hamlet (at a theatre which, like most Paris theatres, was not on the Left Bank). Intellectuals in France, even if they are scientists or creative writers, nevertheless expect to give their opinions on political and moral questions. Religious or political figures will not hesitate to explain what they think about art, poetry or fiction. Everyone expects to be asked about everything, to have their say on all subjects, and to be published. There are endless discussions, petitions, manifestos, congresses, articles, reviews and books. French intellectuals are public figures who may well influence events. They may also live in an imaginary world totally removed from reality. They have created their own mythology and they are often its prisoners. They live urgently, even when the sense of urgency is conferred upon them by themselves. They can live dangerously, they can lose their reputations, they can suffer from unforgiving controversy, and they can lose their lives. All this means that they have a collective existence and that they are never to be dismissed as irrelevant. But their real characteristic is their lack of any agreement or of any common ground. There is no argument which does not have its counterargument, no group activity which does not automatically conjure up a counter-group, no groupuscule which does not split into still smaller sections.

Mr Lottman, in his well-informed and most readable book, suggests that he is tracing the decline of the Left Bank, and sees as part of that decline a betrayal by the Left as they failed to face up to the realities of Stalinism and were made into dupes by those who were working in the interests of Soviet Russia. It was appropriate that in 1949 the case for French ‘neutralism’, both anti-American and anti-Soviet, was put in Le Monde by Etienne Gilson, not a professional journalist, nor a regular political commentator, but a specialist in Medieval philosophy and a member of the Académie Française. The statement that Communist sponsorship had made a mockery of intellectual independence was made, not by a committed right-wing politician, but by Vercors, the author of Le Silence de la Mer and one of the founders of Les Editions de Minuit, the publishing house which had carried the artistic voice of the French Resistance movement all round the world. The failure of neutralism and the failure of the peace movement seem to mark the end of an epoch, and Mr Lottman suggests that this end was present in its beginning, when the Soviet Union encouraged the Left Bank to take a stand against fascism in the Thirties.

But essential to the quarrels and to the endless and inconclusive debate is the hesitancy of the French intellectual. If the Left Bank had maîtres à penser, they were Gide, Malraux and Sartre: Gide who, in 1932, claimed that each one of his books had been ‘la mise en valeur d’une incertitude’ and who, as he read Nizan’s Chiens de Garde, wondered if one could think freely when what one thought led to consequences; Malraux, ‘larchange de la rébellion permanente’, as he was called, but whose dissidence finally took the form of a successful Gaullism; Sartre, who believed in the necessity of contesting even himself. Introspection is intellectual; the dialectic leads to ambiguity. And, as Drieu la Rochelle put it, in 1936, this uncertainty makes the intellectual representative of the nation. For a time the masses support a revolution; for a time they applaud a leader; for a time they identify with a system. But then they change. In much the same way, French intellectuals refuse to be permanently committed. They are like the masses. They are their leaders: they must follow them.