The Politics of Artists

The Left Bank: Writers, Artists and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War By Herbert R. Lottman Houghton, Mifflin & Company; $15.95

IT WAS an extraordinary gathering, if only for the new talent on display. Andre Malraux, Boris Pasternak, Andre Gide, Bertolt Brecht--all had come together at the International Writers' Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris during June of 1935, to protect the rise of fascism in Europe. These were the so-called "engaged writers," men and women who believed that art and politics go hand in hand, that one cannot exist without the other. In the fact of Hitler's spreading madness, they held rallies, made speeches, organized.

On the second day of the Congress, Pasternak, one of the Soviet delegates, stood at the podium. A respected poet, he had not yet written Dr. Zhivago, the work that was to insure his literary immortality. "I understand that this is a meeting of writers to organize assistance to Fascism. I have only one thing to say to you: Do not organize. Organization is the death of art. Only personal independence matters. In 1789, 1818, 1917, writers were not organized for or against anything. Do not, I implore you, do not organize."

In The Left Bank, a fascinating study of writers, artists and politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War. Herbert Lottman shows--among other things--that Pasternak was right. Organization did living on, in a sense, the death of art; those writers who joined forces in the 1930s against the Nazis produced few lasting works, while the loners, like Jean-Paul Sartre or the anti-semitic Louis-Ferdinand Celine, continued to create masterworks. It is a disturbing correlation that Lottman serves up without comment for his reader to ponder.

In fact, Lottman himself remains scrupulously objective and un-engaged throughout The Left Bank Aside from an occasional snide remarks--for example, writing about rightist author Pierre Drieu La Rochelle: "Drieu's biography reads like fiction, which is why it can be preferred to his own books" and an at times unflattering portrait of Malraux Lottman refuses to editorialize. Instead, he paints a marvelously detailed picture of the writers and artists of Paris's Left Bank, their milieu and the confused, often ambiguous way they dealt with the events of their time.

THE LEFT BANK--"that narrow strip of old houses and older streets along the Seine"--was the center of the intellectual world during the period Lottman describes. The doings and sayings of those who congregated in the cafes of Saint German and Saint Michel, bantered in the salons and worked in every conceivable place took on an importance clearly disproportionate to the quality of what was produced. Politics, and not art, was the object of many a writer's energy.


Yet political organization was hardly a new phenomenon among the artistic intelligentsia. What had changed was the orientation: It became international. The literary world in Paris of the 1930s suddenly was interested in events outside its normal scope of concern:

One of the qualities that distinguished writers and artists of the 1930s from those who preceded them in political involvement was the internationalization of concern--the conviction, in Gide's phrase, that each of them had a "right to inspect his neighbor's territory." In the 1930s, a new state of mind developed. Henceforth, the chief concern of committed individuals and their organizations was external.

So the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, all became causes in one year or another--depending on one's place in the ideological spectrum. The Left Bank had a little bit of every thing, though mostly it lived up to its name. Communist, Socialist, leftist, these were the tags affixed to most writers and artists.

And for one brief, glorious moment, the Left was united. Trotskyists and Marxists, Social Democrats and Centrists, all mixed in harmony. It was just after the Writers' Congress, in 1936, when Leon Blum's Popular Front government came to power. Fascism was the common enemy and the glue of disparate ideologies.

But then quickly, as Lottman shows, it was over Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact, alienating the communists from the rest of the Left. Even without the "communist dilemma," the intelligentsia was split between those who wanted to fight fascism and those whose most fervent desire was to avoid war. And in the end, words were no match for German guns' Paris fell and with it unity.

One element in particular stands out from Lottman's engrossing account of the pre-war years: the Left Bank's love affair with the USSR. Natively, like star-struck high schoolers, a whole generation of writers fell for Stalin's brand of communism. If anything, this affliction recalls the admiration for Hanoi many anti-Vietnam war activists expressed during the 1960's. Like so many Susan Sontags, the Left Bankers would make a pilgrimage to their Mecca--and return full of hope that France too would find the "new way."

BUT THE WAR--and the occupation--changed everything. Political affiliation no longer counted. What mattered was how one reacted to the new masters: collaboration or resistance. And in perhaps the most fascinating and frightening passage of his book. Lottman makes the case that "everybody collaborated."

Perhaps the right word for it (collaboration) is not ambiguity, but color-blindness. A number of leading authors pursued their careers during the German years with no apparent misgivings. A writer concerned with nothing more political than the relations between the seven could publish books in a Paris dominated by Swastikas, just as an actor could mouth someone else's words, a musician perform concert music without intelligible content.

Indeed, Sartre Albert Camus came to prominence during the occupation, the former with Being and Nothingness, the latter with The Stranger In all fairness, though, both later became active members of the resistance.

Of course, there were those who refused to toe the line. Many writers went into hiding in Vichy France, publishing underground newspapers and organizing active resistance. Some, like Jean Paulhan, editor of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, lived ambiguously, playing both sides of the game. During the occupation. Papulhan stayed on at the helm of the German-controlled Revue and at the same time was an active member of the resistance.

But in most cases, life went on. For those not being persecuted, the occupation was far from unbearable. And that is tragically understandable. Why run the risk of death, why resist, when one can continue as before to create, to make a living, to service? Few liked the Germans, but they could live with them. This indifferences--not just that of some Left Bankers but of France as a whole--cost millions of lives. That we can understand it makes the phenomenon all the more terrifying.

With the 1950s came neutralism, or what Lottman calls "the third way." As the world divided itself between the United States and the Soviet Union, some writers and artists took sides, but many others looked for another way. They found it is a unified, neutral Europe but were soon disappointed--not with their ideal, but with politics in general. France was involved in Southeast Asia and Algeria. Studio's human rights excesses were becoming obvious and the U.S. had Korea. "The guns are speaking, "said writer Merleau-Ponty, "there is nothing left for us to do but remain silent.