literary left bank ladies

Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900 – 1940 by Shari Benstock

As I said in my initial Goodreads status update tracking my progress reading this book, “I had intended to skim, but that quickly proved to be an impossibility,” as almost instantly I was engrossed by this group of utterly fascinating women—fiercely intelligent, unapologetically complex, sometimes contradictory, but each in their own diverse ways dedicated to the artistic life, in the process often turning in very real ways life itself into an artistic statement.  Utilizing both biography and literary analysis—and demonstrating how often these factors intimately intertwine—Benstock attempts to sketch the ambiguous boundaries of the vibrant Parisian Left Bank community as it functioned during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Benstock’s task is an admittedly daunting one: the first comprehensive study of its kind, it is not particularly surprising that as the chapters progress one begins to get the impression that Benstock is struggling to retain control of her material in light of its obvious potential to branch out infinitely, and the first few chapters function as marvelous portraits of a number of women and/or pairings (romantic, professional and often both at once), most particularly those dedicated to Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney and the coterie of women circling her.  Once she gets to the substantial chapter on H.D., however (included in this study rather tenuously as she intensely disliked Paris and actively avoided spending time there), Benstock is attempting to weave into this histiocultural narrative the stories and accomplishments of a number of individuals, and often these attempts fail to do their subjects justice.  Aside from H.D.’s odd inclusion in this study and much space devoted to Colette (undoubtedly a crucial player in this world, but not an expatriate), exactly who and what is excluded is also rather curious: Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness barely warrant a few passing mentions, and a number of names listed on the cover (Kay Boyle, Caresse Crosby, Maria Jolas and Solita Solano and several others) collectively receive less analysis than, say, the paintings of Romaine Brooks, a topic supposedly outside the scope of study.

But such problems are minor compared to what Benstock does accomplish, which on the one hand is bringing these various women’s life stories to vivid life, and on the other providing a much-needed countering voice to the heterosexual masculine (and extremely romanticized) depiction of the expatriate life as depicted in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the text which has almost singlehandedly defined this period in the popular imagination.  Benstock also does important work in being part of the movement to reexamine and completely reinterpret the literary work of Stein, Barnes, Barney, H.D., Nancy Cunard and others, proclaiming their central importance in any analysis of the Modernist literary movement, defying the condescending marginalization this work has traditionally received by creating spaces of “alternative Modernisms.”  What I most appreciated, however, was how Benstock directly confronts the ways in which the writing of these women resists easy canonical assimilation, and attempts to take into account the ways in which very little of the collective artistic output that was created present a clear, unproblematic case studies for feminist study and discourse.  Benstock recognizes this, and it makes her analysis and the portrait of a place and time all the more richly observed.

The documentary Paris Was a Woman (Greta Schiller, UK, 1995) provides a nice cliffnote-type accompaniment to this (admittedly hefty) volume, with archival footage, photographs and films which provide a brief but tantalizing taste of the period (with Benstock and several other scholars she prominently quotes throughout Women of the Left Bank providing context and analysis).  Not an adequate substitute by any stretch of the imagination, but a nicely realized introduction and/or supplement.

Excerpt on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on YouTube:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads.

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