With its seductive title, Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris hopes to offer a cosmopolitan perspective on a pivotal decade in the country of her birth. For better or worse, the atmosphere of Paris in the 1940s never left those who lived through it and has not ceased to captivate the imagination of later generations. No one pretends that it was an easy time or place to be alive. The decade opened with a stunning military defeat, endured through more than four years of cruel Nazi occupation, blossomed in an excited but spiritually and materially impoverished liberation, and then faded into a moral and psychological ambiguity undergirded by trenchant political, philosophical, and artistic debates about how to move on. Jean-Paul Sartre’s paradoxical claim that “we were never freer than during the German occupation” captures the...


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