The Left Bank
The neighborhood surrounding the church and square at Place Saint-Germain des Près on the left bank of the Seine occupies a unique niche in the intellectual and cultural history not only of France, but also of the world. This small community was the center of French intellectual life during a period in which a number of the most influential literary and philosophical works of the twentieth century were produced in France. This period, from about 1930 to 1950, was the heyday of the “engaged” artist whose commitment to political action took precedence over art for its own sake. The subordination of aesthetic considerations to political expedience all too often came at the expense of artistic quality, and Lottman points out that “the international impact of many of these writers is disproportionate to their artistic achievement,” perhaps because “to produce enduring art one had to be a loner.” Lottman characterizes The Left Bank as “more of a political history than a literary one,” however, and the matter of aesthetic quality does not arise, except tangentially, as a topic for consideration here. Above all, the engaged writer was a political animal, and Lottman’s subject is the politics of the French literary community.
The movement of French writers toward political engagement began in the 1930’s, spurred by the rise of Fascism throughout Europe. The major organized resistance to Fascism in the early days was provided by international Communism, and attachments between Communist organizations and other individuals and groups dedicated to anti-Fascism developed almost from the beginning. In fact, so ubiquitous were these relationships that Lottman is compelled to ask some vexing questions:Was it because the Soviet Union, acting through the Comintern, had devised a strategy for enlisting support from individuals and groups beyond Soviet borders that the anti-Fascist movements of the 1930s developed as they did? Or was it because sincere men and women, Communist sympathizers or not, threw themselves into the anti-Fascist struggle, seeing it as a legitimate effort regardless of its origins?
Whatever the causes, one of the characteristics of political commitment of the period was its internationalization, as involved individuals looked outside their own national borders to respond to events in Germany, Spain, Italy, and, eventually, the Soviet Union itself. At the very least, the Communists proved adept at exploiting anti-Fascism to bring together activists and radicals of a variety of political stripes and hues in a united front sympathetic to the Communist position.
One of the figures most responsible for the emergence of such anti-Fascist coalitions was the Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg, a familiar figure in Parisian cultural and intellectual circles in the days prior to World War II. According to Lottman, it was Ehrenburg who first suggested to his supervisors in Moscow that an anti-Fascist writers’ group be created to encourage support for the Communist position. The proposal apparently caught the attention of Stalin himself, who summoned Ehrenburg back to the Soviet Union for consultation. Although the meeting never took place, Ehrenburg was ordered to submit to his superiors a detailed proposal for the establishment of an international organization of writers. Ehrenburg’s proposal led to the landmark International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture in July, 1935, the first such coalition. It not only marked the beginning of close cooperation between Communists and the non-Communist literary Left, but also was a key event in the internationalization of an important segment of the literary...
(The entire section is 1500 words.)