This book, published in 1993, by art critic and French historian Olivier Bernier is a superb mix of the cultural and political history of France and life in Paris during the 1930s. This was when Parisian culture was burning at its brightest just before its extinguishment in the crushing German defeat of June 1940. For someone like me writing novels set in Paris in the 1930s, the book is gold dust. The entire cavalcade of artists, writers, dress designers, and aristocratic celebrities is portrayed in their comedy of manners with the doomed politicians of the Third Republic, an entire glittering society is sleepwalking to its rendezvous with defeat.
Bernier has a great command of the material and is not afraid to express judgements. President Lebrun is a hopeless mediocrity; Edouard Herriott, the great Radical Socialist politician, is hopelessly inept at the central economic questions facing France during the Depression, Edouard Daladier is fatally indecisive in the face of the big questions facing France at the end of the 1930s. The profiles are highlighted with colorful anecdotes involving women that are not these politicians' wives! Paris was one of the first capitals where political and cultural celebrity intersected.
Sharp profiles of the cultural personalities are also made with Bernier's great self-assurance as a critic. Jean Cocteau's limitations are described as "the curse was an irradicable frivolity" and that he "led a life of relentless chic." He comes across as an earlier version of Truman Capote. Interestingly, Bernier takes dead-eye aim at Andre Malraux, describing him as "a living paradox" and attributing his cultural presence "to his extraordinary eloquence. In a city of talkers, Malraux was famous for the brilliance and uninterruptible abundance of his conversation." He sums him up, "Malraux knew how to dazzle; but behind the torrent of glittering words, the thought was often simplistic or plain silly--his later books on art offer abundant proof of that." Ouch! Bernier gives Malraux credit for his novels of political involvement that went far to define the cultural melieu of the 1930s.
The book is an excellent companion to Alan Riding's book about Paris under the German Occupation "And The Show Went On." Both books will be subject to further blog essays because the relevance of the themes they deal with are so germane to understanding the 1930s and today. Superbly executed, fascinating to read.