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.

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