Agnès Poirier | Excerpt adapted from Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 | Henry Holt and Co. | February 2018 | 20 minutes 5,275 words)

In September 1945, together with their band of students and friends, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were working night and day finalizing the first issue of their journal Les Temps modernes. They had launched the idea at the end of 1944, choosing the title as a tribute to Chaplin’s Modern Times, and, apart from Camus who was too busy editing Combat, they could rely on almost everyone else to write for them — Communists, Catholics, Gaullists, and Socialists: their schoolmate and liberal philosopher friend Raymond Aron, the Marxist phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, the anthropologist and art critic Michel Leiris, the Gallimard supremo Jean Paulhan, and even Picasso, who had agreed to design the cover and logo, along with a new generation of writers who were submitting articles and ideas such as Jacques-Laurent Bost. The British writer Philip Toynbee would contribute a Letter from London, while novels and essays the committee particularly liked would be serialized prior to their publication or with a view to attracting a potential publisher. Les Temps modernes would be a laboratory of new ideas and a talent scout rolled into one. Simone de Beauvoir had personally approached the minister of information, the Gaullist and résistant Jacques Soustelle, to ask for an allocation of paper.

Gallimard had agreed to finance the journal and to give the team a little office where they could hold their editorial meetings. The first issue was planned for October 1, 1945. Jean-Paul Sartre was made the head of the publication, “Monsieur le Directeur,” and he thought it important to make himself available to everyone. This would be democracy and public debate in action. He committed to receiving anyone who asked to see him at the magazine’s office at 5 rue Sébastien Bottin every Tuesday and Friday afternoon between five thirty and seven thirty. This commitment was printed at the beginning of the magazine, along with the telephone number Littré 28-91, where they could be reached. Sartre had decided to dedicate the first issue of Les Temps modernes “To Dolorès,” in all simplicity. Simone did not blink an eye.

In the first issue, Sartre announced loud and clear what Les Temps modernes stood for. It was to be the megaphone that would carry their thoughts far and wide.

Every writer of bourgeois origin has known the temptation of irresponsibility. I personally hold Flaubert personally responsible for the repression that followed the Commune because he did not write a line to try to stop it. It was not his business, people will perhaps say. Was the Calas trial Voltaire’s business? Was Dreyfus’s condemnation Zola’s business? We at Les Temps modernes do not want to miss a beat on the times we live in. Our intention is to influence the society we live in. Les Temps modernes will take sides.

The tone was set, the thinking promised to be muscular and the writing fearless.

The first issue opened with a story from a collection soon to be published in France. The short story, “Le feu dans la nuée” (“Fire and Cloud”) by the black American writer Richard Wright, with its title taken from Uncle Tom’s Children, shocked French readers with its “negroes,” its lynch mobs in the deep American South, and its criticism of religion. “Fire and Cloud” not only introduced a gifted new writer to French readers but also shed light on racial discrimination in America in lyrical and violent language, superbly translated by Marcel Duhamel. It was followed by an article on poverty, inflation, and famine by Raymond Aron; a psychiatrist’s commentary on collective psychosis in time of war and how war introduced a festering anxiety in everyone; an account of the Pétain trial by Raymond Aron; reportage on the V-E Day celebrations in New York; and Philip Toynbee’s Letter from London. This first issue concluded with an article by Sartre titled “The End of the War,” in which he wrote: “Peace is a new beginning but we are living an agony. We go from war to peace through different stages, different shades. War has left everyone naked, without illusions; they now can only rely on themselves and this is perhaps the only good thing that has come out of it.”

The first issue of Les Temps modernes made a strong impression on readers in Paris and abroad. The tone was original, the reportage read like literature, the style was uncompromising, and the analysis pugnacious. Les Temps modernes shocked with its pessimism, yet it also felt new. It was not the nihilism of the 1920s with suicide as a lifestyle choice — this new pessimism was less passive, often prompting immediate action. Les Temps modernes enriched whoever read it; it also provoked and disturbed them profoundly.

Wherever you walked in Paris in October 1945, bookshop windows displayed Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s latest novels side by side, while newsagents sold Les Temps modernes… There was suddenly no escaping the sometime couple.

As the journal hit the newsstands, Gallimard released another work by Sartre, the first two volumes (The Age of Reason and The Reprieve) of a three-part novel titled Les chemins de la liberté (The Roads to Freedom). The novel revolved around Mathieu, a Socialist philosophy teacher, and his group of friends, whose lives are redefined by their actions (or lack of actions) during the Nazi occupation. Like Beauvoir in Le sang des autres (The Blood of Others), Sartre was addressing the issue of commitment or, as they called it, engagement. Simone de Beauvoir’s second novel, Le sang des autres, about the nature of freedom, had come out a few months earlier. Praised by reviewers and dedicated to her former student and lover Nathalie Sorokine, it told the story of Hélène and Jean, a young couple during the Occupation, and the consequences of their actions for themselves, for others, and for the course of history. To resist or not to resist the German occupants was a central question in which passivity as much as resistance appeared a radical choice. Simone was on the same wavelength as Sartre and together they were developing what they referred to as a philosophy of existence. The press gave it a different name: Existentialism. Young people flocked to it because of all the varieties of atheism, it placed men and women at the heart of their lives and that of society. Responsibility for their actions as much as for their inactions, for their commitment or lack of it, was theirs and theirs alone. No more excuses; men and women were what they did or what they did not have the courage to do. Sartre’s philosophy also offered new, modern freedoms expressed through jazz music, American literature including pulp fiction, all kinds of popular culture usually looked down on, sexual experimentation, and innovation in the arts. This greatly attracted young minds.

Wherever you walked in Paris in October 1945, bookshop windows displayed Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s latest novels side by side, while newsagents sold Les Temps modernes. The three publications were discussed in cafés, in newspapers, and on the radio. There was suddenly no escaping the sometime couple.

In fact, after just a few issues, Les Temps modernes had not only managed “to break down the divide between literature and journalism,” it had also “acquired, throughout Europe, and parts of North America, a reputation for being fresh, stimulating,” and, more important, thought-provoking. The bimonthly Sunday afternoon editorial meetings were now an established routine for everyone and they would soon often take place at Sartre’s new home. His eighteen years of hotel life was coming to an end while Beauvoir’s was going to last another two years at La Louisiane. His mother, Anne-Marie Mancy, had recently lost her husband, a stepfather with whom Sartre had never gotten along well, and he had agreed to live with her. She had found an apartment at 42 rue Bonaparte, on the corner of the place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with a view over both the church and the Café des Deux Magots. On the morning of Sunday, May 12, 1946, Sartre took his two brown leather suitcases and reached the fourth floor of this typical sandstone pre-Haussmann building, slightly out of breath. The maid, the good old Alsatian Eugénie whom he had known for years, helped him settle in. He looked around; he liked it there. He chose the living room with its south view over the square as his study, his office, and his boudoir. It was not very large but could host the weekly editorial meetings. In any case, it was never bad when people sat close to each other; the proximity created a certain warmth. He had identified a little corner near the second window where he would put a tiny desk, in fact a bridge table, for Simone so she could come and write in the afternoon. They had ceased to be lovers years ago; Simone was a “grande amoureuse,” while he was more interested in the chase than in the sexual act, but they had many other ways of intimate communion, and writing together was one of them.

Les Temps modernes’ editorial meetings, which Simone called “the highest form of friendship,” increasingly dragged well into the night, by which time heated intellectual arguments subsided into general laughter. The journal considered its public very seriously. Every Tuesday for two hours, “readers’ conferences” took place at Les Temps modernes’ little office at Gallimard. Simone de Beauvoir attended almost every one of them. As promised at the magazine’s outset, whoever among the magazine’s readers wanted to meet with a member of the editorial committee could do so. The Tuesday visitors came to discuss articles, seek advice, or submit texts, either comments or letters, in the hope they would get published.

* * *

On October 29, 1945, Sartre was racing against time, as usual, finishing writing notes for the talk he was giving that night titled “Is Existentialism a Humanism?” He was due at eight thirty at Club Maintenant, a lecture hall and former hôtel particulier of Princess d’Essling, behind the Grand Palais. Sartre did not have time to change — he never did — besides, he was certain there would not be many people attending despite small advertisements in the press. He and Beauvoir left the Café de Flore late and arrived slightly out of breath at the rue Jean Goujon in the 8th arrondissement. They found the right room, but when they opened the door they were greeted with “Go away, you’re too late, there is no room left.” The lecture hall was packed with people standing up and sitting on the floor. The organizers had to help them get through the crowd so Sartre could start his lecture.

Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s reputation was practically sealed that instant… Here was a new philosophy powerful enough to make people faint.

A very tall, thin blond man with a pale face was standing, crushed between a fat middle-aged woman and a young female student with a ponytail and a black turtleneck. His name was Boris Vian, and the twenty-five-year-old would soon immortalize this memorable evening in his first novel, L’écume des jours (Foam of the Days). The room was overcrowded and too hot. Sartre loosened his tie slightly and started explaining his idea of engagement and moral responsibility in a very accessible way. Soon after he had started talking, a woman fainted, and then another. Fortunately, somebody thought to open the windows, but Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s reputation was practically sealed that instant. Existentialism had struck and claimed its first two victims. Here was a new philosophy powerful enough to make people faint. As soon as Samedi Soir’s account was published the next day, word spread and youngsters flocked to buy Sartre’s seven-hundred-page, one-kilo treatise L’être et le néant, much as their mothers had run out to buy it two years earlier to use as a weight. L’être et le néant became a fashionable book, and Existentialism would soon inspire a cult following. Or, as Janet Flanner saw it with her deprecating humor: “Sartre is automatically fashionable now among those who once found Surrealism automatically fashionable.”

In its account of the evening, the Communist-leaning Samedi Soir had referred to Simone de Beauvoir as “La Grande Sartreuse” and “Notre Dame de Sartre.” It was meant as an insult; it made her laugh. The newspaper also revealed that, although they were a couple, her relationship with Sartre was not an exclusive one, and that they had never married. This shocked half of France and electrified the other half. In a matter of days, the scandalous couple were being chased by photographers; people stared at them and whispered as they passed. And yet Sartre did not change his routine, at least not at first. He continued to dress the way he had always done — that is to say, without paying much attention to it — he worked in cafés, had dinner out with either Beauvoir or his mistress du jour without trying to hide the way he lived. This, of course, caused even more fury among the bourgeois, who hated the vision of France and French bourgeoisie that Sartre’s novels and new journal were projecting back at them. Sartre was accused of “sordid realism” and “miserabilism.”

Sartre took fame in his stride, not that he looked for it — rather the opposite. This sudden glory felt to him idiotic and a high price to pay. He had wanted to write novels, to be a writer, to be a genius living in obscurity like Baudelaire. Events had decided otherwise and sentenced him to be an outspoken intellectual living in the glare of public attention. Nobody would ever remember what he wrote but only what he was and what he said — in other words, he would be remembered as a public intellectual, not quite the same thing as the great writer he had once wanted to be. “From now on, he would put the absolute in the ephemeral, he would lock himself up in the present and in the time he lived in, he would accept to perish entirely with his epoch,” wrote Beauvoir. What extraordinary clairvoyance and lucidity. Indeed, Les chemins de la liberté, his second novel, would be his last work of fiction. Sartre would sacrifice himself to commenting and trying to influence the world.

Simone de Beauvoir resented this sudden fame less than Sartre; she was also less exposed than him. She had always liked the immediacy of life, its many physical and sensual pleasures, friendships and conversation, gossip too. Their journal’s first issue had provoked so many reactions, so much anger and so much praise, that they both threw themselves into producing the following ones. However, some Communist writer friends suddenly declined to write for Les Temps modernes. They had been told not to by the Party. What of the Resistance spirit that was supposed never to die? In fact, verbal abuse started flaring up in some corners. The Catholic daily La Croix laid into Sartre’s L’être et le néant: “This atheist existentialism is a far greater danger than the eighteenth-century rationalism and the nineteenth-century positivism put together.” The Communists branded Existentialism “a sordid and frivolous philosophy for sick people.” They attacked Sartre personally, claiming that his dirtiness was both physical and moral and that, just like a pig, he wallowed in dirt. As two bourgeois who had decided to disavow their social origins, Sartre and Beauvoir understood the bourgeoisie’s violence against them, but they were deeply hurt by the Communists’ reaction.

Beauvoir and Sartre thrived on dissent and debate. Now that their journal had shaken up public conscience, there was no stopping them.

Editorial meetings became heated affairs. Beauvoir always disagreed with the art critic Michel Leiris about poetry, and Raymond Aron soon refused to publish any pro-Communist articles and comments. Camus had approached him to join Combat and he was seriously considering it. “In this period of renaissance, still hesitant and slow-boiling, there were many new questions, challenges to be met, mistakes to correct, misunderstandings to dispel, and criticisms to reject. Our debates had the intimacy, urgency and warmth of family quarrels,” wrote Simone in her diary. Beauvoir and Sartre thrived on dissent and debate. Now that their journal had shaken up public conscience, there was no stopping them.

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The journal’s December 1945 issue did not disappoint. In an uncompromising introduction, Beauvoir explained the nature of Existentialism: “If Existentialism upsets and worries some people, it is not because it is a philosophy of despair but rather because it demands that people live in a state of constant tension. Why so exacting, though? Why insist that people leave their comfort zones?” Then came an extract from Jean Genet’s forthcoming Pompes funèbres (Funeral Rites), which opened with the line “To me, sausages and pâtés tasted like corpses.” Genet, still largely unknown, and whose early poetry and novels Sartre and Cocteau had championed, was deemed a pornographic author. Readers were also given the first pages of Sartre’s first critical essay, Réflexions sur la question juive (Anti-Semite and Jew); Nathalie Sorokine, now pregnant and married to an American GI, the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, wrote a piece based on her own experience flirting with American GIs in Paris called “Nuits sans importance” (“Meaningless nights”) in which she in fact revealed that she had prostituted herself in exchange for cigarettes, coffee, and milk. There was also an analysis of the British social reformer William Beveridge’s book Full Employment in a Free Society, a theater review of Camus’ Caligula, a Letter from America by an ex-GI returning home from France, chilling witness accounts of a former Lagercapo Stubendienst (an inmate assigned to barracks orderly duty) in concentration camps, and a roundup of British and American views and comments on the forthcoming French elections.

By Christmas 1945, Beauvoir was in need of a break. She packed her suitcase, booked herself a couchette in the overnight train from the Gare d’Austerlitz to Megève, and on the way bought a copy of Les Lettres françaises, which had just published a vitriolic attack on Sartre and Existentialism. On its front page, an article by the Communist apparatchik Roger Garaudy claimed: “On a reactionary philosophy. A false prophet: Jean-Paul Sartre.” Sartre’s independence made him an enemy of the Communists. The Communists in fact feared Sartre, who was becoming increasingly popular with the young.

* * *

With Sartre touring American universities and giving talks on Existentialism, Simone de Beauvoir could not afford to stay away from Paris for too long, and after a couple of weeks spent in Tunisia lecturing about the philosophy of existence and visiting the Sahel desert, she returned to the helm of the magazine, with editorial meetings taking place once a week in her hotel room or at the journal’s tiny office at Gallimard. She particularly wanted to help and promote new and young writers. She kept encouraging Violette Leduc, who was working on a novel.

Leduc was an odd one. She had fallen for Simone after reading She Came to Stay in 1944, which had revealed Simone’s bisexuality. An unwanted and unloved child never officially recognized by her father, Violette had spent the war years living off the black market, trafficking and schlepping heavy loads of meat and butter from Normandy to Paris restaurants every week. She was angry, rebellious, and amoral and had decided to channel her raw energy and spite into her writing. One afternoon, Violette had appeared in front of Beauvoir’s table at the Café de Flore with a manuscript in her hand; it was titled L’asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin). Simone offered the revised manuscript to Camus who, in parallel to his work for Combat, edited a collection of novels by first-time writers at Gallimard. Beauvoir also chose an extract to be published in the November issue of Les Temps modernes. A new angry and original voice was born. Both Sartre’s new protégé, the thief turned poet Jean Genet, and Jean Cocteau recognized in Violette Leduc a sister in arms.

Beauvoir had introduced Violette Leduc to another writer who had just had her first piece accepted in Les Temps modernes — Nathalie Sarraute. Sarraute, née Tcherniak, a Russian Jew married to a Frenchman, eight years older than Beauvoir, had spent the war years in hiding, under false identities, moving from one place to another. She had herself sheltered Samuel Beckett and Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil in September 1942 when they had been forced to leave their Paris home immediately after the Resistance network Gloria was uncovered by the Gestapo. The anti-Semitic laws of 1941 had deprived Sarraute of her métier, that of lawyer, so she had turned to writing. Both Sartre and Beauvoir, who had warmed to this woman with her “disquieting subtlety,” had resolved to help her find a publisher. Sarraute was currently writing her first “anti-roman,” as Sartre had swiftly named it with his talent for formulas, which she had titled Portrait d’un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown). Les Temps modernes decided to publish extracts in the hope of attracting the interest of a publisher. The term “anti-novel” stuck. Also widely known, ten years later, as le nouveau roman, this literary form, subordinating plot and characterization to a vision of the world, was a product of the laboratory of ideas that Sartre and Beauvoir’s monthly review encouraged.

Existentialism mania had feverishly gripped New York’s intellectual and student circles. Newspapers and magazines were full of it, trying to explain it to their readers.

Simone de Beauvoir spent her evenings with her new friend Boris Vian, engineer, jazz trumpeter, former Zazou, translator of American thrillers, and aspiring writer. Simone laughed at the way Vian was still dressing, à la Zazou, in blue jeans and checked shirts from the U.S. Army surplus. They both liked to drink and to listen to jazz. Six years earlier, a barely twenty-year-old Vian had married his sweetheart, a pinup blonde named Michelle; they had had a boy, Patrick, whom they entrusted to her parents. Neither of them had any aspiration or talent for parenting, and they were not going to pretend otherwise. They liked inviting their friends to “tartine parties” when they could lay their hands on bread. Sometimes they simply asked their friends to come with their own rations.

At one such soirée in January 1946, Beauvoir and Vian talked until dawn, a “fleeting moment of eternal friendship” as she recalled. He had an idea for a first novel, he teased Simone, in which he might write about her and Sartre. Sartre and Beauvoir had become a living and philosophical gold standard, especially for Boris Vian’s generation.

In Sartre’s absence, Beauvoir had been particularly struck by two unpublished autobiographical works by David Rousset, the short L’univers concentrationnaire and the eight-hundred-page “novel” Les jours de notre mort (The Days of Our Death). Both revealed for the first time, in great detail, with sangfroid and in-depth analysis, the machinery of the concentration camps. Rousset, a résistant and former Paris correspondent of the American magazines Time and Fortune, was bearing witness in a cool and thus extremely powerful way to his two years spent at Buchenwald and Neuengamme camps. It would be another year before Primo Levi would write his own memoirs of survival in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man. Les Temps modernes published extracts of both David Rousset’s forthcoming books in its March and April issues, to great acclaim and general stupefaction. Offers from foreign publishers started flooding in, such was the power of the journal at home and abroad.

* * *

Time magazine dedicated five pages of its 1945 issue to “the literary lion of Paris who had bounced into Manhattan.” The caption under the flattering portrait of Sartre that ran with the article read philosopher sartre. women swooned.

American women may have swooned, but they did not pass out, as they had at Club Maintenant. Marcel Duchamp, seated in the first rows of Carnegie Hall in New York, had exclaimed: “We are now before Sartre Cathedral.” The literary critic Lionel Abel, also seated in the first rows at Carnegie Hall, not far from Marcel Duchamp, had had the chance to meet the philosopher for lunch beforehand, at a French restaurant on West Fifty-Sixth Street. The lunch had been organized by the anti-Stalinist and Trotskyite-leaning magazine Partisan Review. Lionel Abel and the philosopher Hannah Arendt had been invited as guests but were also expected to serve as interpreters for the French philosopher. Abel did not exactly swoon when he met Sartre, but he could not take his eyes off him, either. Sartre had “the most interesting modern face,” he wrote. “Short, stocky, thick-wristed and broad-chested, the thrust of his shoulders gave one a sense of physical power; his speech was sharp, crisp, virile, while his complexion was an unhealthy gray.” The Partisan Review’s editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, wanted to make sure that they were all on the same wavelength and that Sartre would continue to attack Stalinist influence when he returned to Europe, as they were doing in America.

What they did not realize was that Sartre was even more suspicious of American capitalism than he was of Stalinism. But Sartre did not want to bruise his American friends too much, delighted as he was by his trip — he loved New York and its adoring crowds. But the truth was that Sartre, like Beauvoir a few months later, was both fascinated and repulsed by America and American culture. He was already thinking about Les Temps modernes’ special double summer issue, which he wanted to dedicate to the United States. Sartre, who loved America in so many ways, was also lucid, seeing through the American “founding myths: happiness, progress, realism, optimism, triumphant motherhood, and freedom.”

Albert Camus was to follow closely in his friend Sartre’s footsteps and was packing his suitcase for America. Camus was considered the third Existentialist musketeer. He didn’t think he had much in common with his friends’ “modish new philosophy,” as Janet Flanner put it in the New Yorker, but the association certainly did not bother him, at least for the time being. After all, Existentialism mania had feverishly gripped New York’s intellectual and student circles. Newspapers and magazines were full of it, trying to explain it to their readers. It scared many people, though, who deemed it a little too gloomy.

Richard Wright was not scared; he was impatient, and a year had passed without any news of his passport application. One afternoon in March 1946 he had received a call from Dorothy Norman, columnist for the New York Post, Alfred Stieglitz’s lover, and the wife of a millionaire. She was throwing a party for Sartre and would love him to come. Wright was excited; though his short story had been published in the first issue of Les Temps modernes, he had never met Sartre in the flesh. The evening was a great success; he warmed to Sartre immediately and, just as important, he met the French cultural attaché Claude Lévi-Strauss, who promised to resolve his passport problems. “Leave it to me,” the anthropologist and diplomat told him. Six weeks later, on April 25, Lévi-Strauss presented him with an official invitation from the French government to come and visit Paris. France would pay for his fare and first month’s expenses.

After the success of Sartre’s American tour, the whole world now wanted to hear about Existentialism.

Even the U.S. State Department in Washington was taken by Existentialist fever. All these French events, activities, talks, lectures, and articles in the U.S. press got the State Department slightly concerned, or perhaps simply curious. On the morning of January 31, 1946, Frederick B. Lyon, head of the foreign activity correlation division, had written to the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to inquire about a certain Camus whose newspaper Combat had published inaccurate and unfavorable reports about America. Could a preliminary investigation be made? There was no file on Camus yet at the FBI. Washington agents had to resort to reading the press, and more particularly an article written by Hannah Arendt published in the Nation early in February, to get slightly more familiar with Existentialism and Albert Camus. They also learned that both Camus and Sartre had refused the Legion of Honor. Suspicious. On his visa application Wright had asserted that he had never been a Communist sympathizer. This provoked hilarity among his close friends but the FBI took his word for it.

* * *

Invitations for talks kept landing on Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s desks at Les Temps modernes. After the success of Sartre’s American tour, the whole world now wanted to hear about Existentialism. Countries would have to take it in turn: lectures and signings in Switzerland, Italy, and Scandinavia were planned for the spring and the summer. New friends from afar were also making their way to Paris.

In May 1946, Richard Wright, his wife, Ellen, and their daughter, Julia, left New York Harbor on board the SS Brazil, an old cargo boat transformed into a troopship and now a passenger liner. The black American writer felt so impatient to reach the other side of the Atlantic that he had not been able to repress a thought that would have astonished many immigrants. He kept his unusual and shocking sentiment for his diary: “I felt relieved when the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty.”

At dawn on May 10 the train pulled in at the Gare Saint-Lazare. A fresh breeze welcomed the little family as they stepped onto the platform. Wright had prayed and hoped for a triumphant arrival in the City of Light. His wish would be granted. Being a guest of the French government, he was greeted by an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Also on the platform was Douglas Schneider from the American embassy, with not one but two black limousines waiting outside the station. This was unexpected. In fact, smelling the potential for trouble and aware of its compatriot’s ambivalence toward America, the State Department had asked its embassy people in Paris to ingratiate themselves to the Wrights in as many ways as possible. Limousines at dawn would probably impress.

On Sunday, only two days after his arrival, Wright had been invited to attend the editorial meeting of Les Temps modernes at Sartre’s new home. There could not be a more direct introduction to intellectual life in Paris and its strange mores for an American recently arrived from Brooklyn with only a smattering of French. The Paris sky was cloudy when, from their respective hotel rooms and lovers’ dens, the contributors to the review made their way to the place de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Boris Vian, whom Simone had invited to join the writers’ team, had forgotten his umbrella but had thought of bringing his trumpet: one never knew, it could prove useful. A trumpet could lighten somber moods, ease heated political arguments, reconcile enemies. Simone had stopped at the Café des Deux Magots on the way to buy cigarettes, and she had a bottle of cognac in her bag. Though they were meeting at six, discussions often dragged on for hours. Everybody liked a little pick-me-up, especially after one of Merleau-Ponty’s strenuous and long expositions on phenomenology. Sartre’s mother had baked doughnuts, and the maid, Eugénie, had conspicuously placed a bottle of plum brandy from her beloved Alsace on Sartre’s desk.

When Wright arrived, the cigarette smoke in the room was already so thick that he had difficulty distinguishing Simone’s turban in the fug. The conversation focused on the special double summer issue dedicated to American society, politics, and literature. Wright not only would help and advise on the content; his own work would also take center stage. Les Temps modernes intended to commission many articles from American journalists and writers rather than just publish French opinions on the United States, one after the other. American voices would in fact be predominant. Sartre asked Dolorès Vanetti in New York to be, in effect, the magazine’s liaison officer in the United States, commissioning writers directly, collating pieces, editing, and translating them. Boris Vian volunteered to write about Negro spirituals, and Simone mentioned serializing Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, a study of race and urban life and a sweeping historical and sociological account of the people of Chicago’s South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s. She also wanted to publish extracts from Jazzmen by William Russell and Stephen W. Smith, The Book of American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson, and Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie, a biting portrait of the American woman. It was agreed that the art critic Clement Greenberg would be commissioned to write a long piece on American art from 1900 onward.

Boris Vian had slipped into his trumpet case the manuscript of L’écume des jours, which he had just finished typing on his engineering company’s paper. Would he dare give it to Simone after the editorial meeting? In his novel, two characters were philosophers, one called Jean-Sol Partre and the other the Duchesse de Bovouard. The puns and wordplays on Existentialism were aplenty: Sartre’s thick philosophy treatise L’ être et le néant was referred to as “Lettre et le néon” [The Letter and the Neon], “a catalog of lighting appliances.”

* * *

Born in Paris, Agnès Poirier has lived and worked in London for the last twenty years, and writes in both English and French. Her work has appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Times and The Independent on Sunday. She advises the Cannes Film Festival on British films and is currently a regular panel member of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Dateline London.

Excerpted from LEFT BANK: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 by Agnès Poirier.  Published by Herny Holt. Copyright © 2018 by Agnès Poirier. All rights reserved. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky