The Thinking Man's Paris; Antony Beevor Tours the Postwar Haunts of Jean-Paul Sartre and His Philosophical Friends

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Thinking Man's Paris; Antony Beevor Tours the Postwar Haunts of Jean-Paul Sartre and His Philosophical Friends


Byline: ANTONY BEEVOR

SOME things in Paris never really change.

Best of all is the theatre of everyday life.

I love sitting in the Cafe de Flore on the Boulevard Germain, watching not the passersby but the waiters. Each one is still playing at the role, delivering his order with a nonchalant flourish.

This phenomenon was first observed by Jean-Paul Sartre in this very cafe, when he and Simone de Beauvoir and other writers used to scribble away at tables in a row, making the place look like an examination room. The concept of the man's

Saint-waiter as unconscious actor was brought into his major work, Being And Nothingness, the completely unreadable bible of existentialist philosophy.

This was also the cafe where the magnificently unattractive Sartre was besieged by beautiful young women. He profited from this fan club quite shamelessly, proving that ugliness was not a barrier to sexual success.

According to Simone de Beauvoir, his partner in ideas but no longer in love, Sartre had a rather diabolical side: 'He conquered young girls by explaining their souls to them.' Those heady days of Saint-Ger-main began in August 1944, when young Parisiennes dressed in red, white and blue clambered on to the armoured vehicles of their liberators to kiss their dusty faces.

Nowhere was the elation greater than around the quartier of Saint-Germain des Pres where novelists, philosophers and painters joined the delirious crowds, chanting and singing. Saint-Germain entered an extraordinary period.

It rapidly became the intellectual mecca of the world. 'In Paris,' observed Jacques Prevert, the screenwriter of Les Enfants du Paradis, 'it seems you need a war to put a quartier on the map.' You also needed youth and stamina to survive the all-night 'fiestas', arguing over politics, philosophy and love.

The leading actors in this small world became characters in their own unscripted dramas. They

formed coteries, they seduced each other, they quarrelled bitterly - over politics, not infidelity - and they became the superheroes of French intellectual life.

Sartre and his circle had their own routine and meeting places, a series of cafes and restaurants all within a short stroll from the Place de Saint-Germain des Pres. There was, however, one place they particularly avoided on principle after the Liberation, and that was the Brasserie Lipp.

Its specialite d'Alsace of sausage and sauerkraut had attracted German officers in swarms during the Occupation. Sitting in the Cafe de Flore, you can see the Brasserie Lipp on the opposite side of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Today it attracts politicians from the National Assembly, who are no doubt comforted as much by its unmodernised decor of large mirrors, dark brown wood and panels of painted tiles as by its unchanged menu.

Stardom in Saint-Germain, with every hopeful young writer buttonholing Sartre and de Beau-voir in the Flore, or stopping them in the street, made work impossible. So, in the autumn of 1945, they and their friends, who included Albert Camus, moved their informal club to the downstairs bar of the Hotel Pont-Royal in the rue Montalembert. It was only a few yards from their publisher, Gaston Gallimard, who had offered them office space to run their literary magazine, Les Temps Modernes.

The decidedly rundown Hotel Pont-Royal, now in the process of major restoration, was to be their undiscovered refuge for some time. American playwright Arthur Miller, who stayed at the Pont-Royal in the winter of 1947 and wanted to make their acquaintance, never

knew that they met there. He remembered the hotel vividly.

The concierge wore a tailcoat which was coming to pieces, and 'his chin always showed little nicks from having shaved with cold water'. Once a day this prematurely-aged man rushed home across Paris to feed his rabbits, the only source of meat then for much of the population. …

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