By Dominique Kalifa (translated by Susan Emanuel)

Columbia University Press. 252 pages. £25. ISBN 978-0-231-20219-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The Belle Époque? Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Can-Can, men in top-hats, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bohemia, paintings of pretty girls in long dresses on busy streets or in crowded salons by Jean Béraud, and society portraits by Giovanni Boldini. I could carry on pulling images out of the mass swirling around in my head at the mention of the Belle Époque. But what caused them to be there?   

It’s a question that Dominique Kalifa explores in this book. As he points out, the term Belle Époque was not used by anyone at the time. Which was when? After considering various options, he settles on the period between 1900 and 1914, though it’s perhaps possible to push the starting date back by a few years. But 1900 is the key to an understanding of what Belle Époque came to mean as it faded into memory. It represented the change from one century to the next, but more than that it seemed to suggest a time when peace, progress and prosperity appeared to be prominent.

It wasn’t quite like that, of course, but people wanted to imagine that it was. Nostalgia is a powerful force and it’s easy to feel it for something that we didn’t directly experience. But it is necessary to point out that those years between 1900 and 1914 did see “a prodigious cultural flowering that made Paris the incontestable capital of world art and letters, which in this period witnessed a sort of paroxysm of the audacious, of experimentation and aesthetic inventiveness”.

So, in the case of the Belle Époque, why was there a need to celebrate an imagined past? And when did the celebrating start? Kalifa makes it clear that it wasn’t in the 1920s. It might be thought that, following the end of the First World War, there would be a rush to reactivate the “golden years” that supposedly existed prior to 1914. But it seems not. There was a resurgence of fine living as cafés and restaurants flourished and energies were devoted to having a good time. The Twenties in Paris created their own Belle Époque, as foreigners flooded in (think of all those American expatriates writing poems and novels and the many more who were just there for business or pleasure) and there was plenty of money around.

There were other things going on, but on the whole we prefer to read about the bright side of life. And no-one felt the urge to look back fondly on the Paris of 1900. Perhaps a few people did, and Kalifa cites a newspaper survey which complained that there were now “too many automobiles, too many buses, too many tarred roads, not to mention all these metro-building sites that are disfiguring the urban landscape”. But for many the trauma of the Great War helped displace thoughts of pre-war Paris from their minds. It was enough that they could now enjoy the Paris that had come to life after 1918. The Moulin Rouge had burned down in 1915 and a new one opened up in the early 1920s. But, Kalifa says, “not the slightest nostalgia was expressed in the new shows, which looked unhesitatingly to the present”, with influences from America to the fore. And, after all, anyone of a certain age in the Twenties knew that pre-1914 wasn’t all sweetness and light. Kalifa points to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Instalment Plan and its depiction of Paris around 1900 as a “dirty, ignoble, infected place, peopled with failures, traversed by the ‘numberless legions of thirst’ “.

It was in the early-1930s that The Belle Époque made an appearance as a description of an era: “While the world horizon was darkening, the longing for the past grew and its tone changed……Backward-looking memoirs, novels, and songs multiplied, while the sensations of 1900 were being adapted for stage or screen”. And Kalifa asserts that it was only around 1940 that it “came definitively to designate what for a dozen years had been known as the ‘1900 era’ “. 1940 may seem to be a curious date to use. The Germans were marching through Paris by then, and life in France became a matter of survival. Why would anyone be thinking of an imagined past? But, why not? It could, perhaps, be a form of sustenance, a belief in a French culture that would survive occupation.

For some in Paris it may also have been an opportunistic move to focus on the imagined Paris of 1900: “The ‘vie parisienne’ came back into its own, particularly because economic demand was high from both Occupation troops and privileged spectators and consumers.....At the end of 1940, more than 100 cinemas, 25 theatres, 14 music halls, and 21 cabarets in Paris were fully functioning”. Kalifa refers to the way in which the idea of the Belle Époque was used to entertain Germans who had its mythological setting in mind, but was also “mobilised for good profits in a ‘very French vein’ at all the capital’s theatres and café-concerts”.

It was obvious that France as a nation experienced a loss of prestige after 1945 as the economy struggled to recover, and French colonies in Indo-China and Algeria fought to obtain their freedom. In the arts, too, the French suffered a diminution in their standing as the focus in painting shifted to New York, and the notion of the avant-garde having its headquarters in the French capital became defunct. Taken together, these factors might explain why “mobilizing the Belle Époque could signify a return to the age of cultural influence, the age of innocence, the age of France”. It made people feel good to think that there had been a time when what Paris did today, the rest of the Western world did tomorrow.

Memoirs and general histories poured off the presses, and “From 1945 to the end of the 1950s more than, 60 French films in the ‘1900 spirit’ came to the screens”. Needless to say, the working-classes “do not count for much” in these films, other than that they pop up as servants, soldiers, cab-drivers, laundresses, and the like. But then workers were hardly in evidence in paintings dating from the original period. And memoirs were mostly written by the middle-class about their own class.

There were changes in the 1960s, particularly after the events of 1968. Young historians and others began to look at where the workers stood in the overall scheme of the Belle Époque : “This shift owes much to ideological movements that brought to the fore ideas impregnated with critical theory and with political and social radicalism”. Obviously, it must have been known before the radicals came along that the years between 1900 and 1914 were not simply devoted to frivolities and frolics on the part of a small selection of Parisian society. There were deep social problems, such as poverty, alcoholism, syphilis, and industrial strife, that should not be ignored. But they often were overlooked in books, magazine articles, exhibitions, and films that purported to present an accurate account of the Belle Époque.

This may have been because their creators had to base their views on those they could find in books by people who had lived through 1900 and beyond, on paintings and photographs from the period, and similar material. New commentators wanted to challenge this approach. But how successful were they outside the universities and general intellectual circles? Popular forms, such as films, music, and many books aim to appeal to a wider audience. It’s a fact that a film, book, or exhibition of an imagined Belle Époque of well-dressed couples dining in expensive restaurants, or parading their finery in shops and streets, is likely to attract a larger audience than anything taking a downbeat look at an era. Working-class deprivation, diseases, mine disasters, strikes, etc. are not glamorous.

The Belle Époque is inevitably always associated with Paris, but Kalifa widens his survey to show how, in the 1970s, there was a trend towards activity in the provinces which can be related to the nostalgia for an idealised past. In a sense, various cities, towns, districts, started their own celebrations of a Belle Époque with local festivals and exhibitions. A few years ago I was in Auvers one Sunday when the town was awash with bunting and flags. As I came down the hill from the cemetery where Vincent Van Gogh was buried I could hear music played on a street organ or some such instrument, and I could see at the bottom of the hill a couple dressed in costumes from 1900 or so dancing in the style of that period. The buildings alongside the road are old, there were no cars or pedestrians in contemporary clothes, simply the sounds and sights of an earlier era. And for a brief moment I was swept with nostalgia, despite not being French nor having any experience of the supposed Belle Époque.

Publishers sprang up to cater for the interest in the past. Collections of old photographs appeared and postcards from years ago became collectors’ items. This fascination with facets of earlier years hasn’t been limited to France. Kalifa sums it up well when he says of the Belle Époque: “In general, the term remained focused on the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century and still evoked forms of social and cultural life, but now ‘Belle Époque’ seemed more and more to escape the history of France  alone. It also tended to escape history altogether and become a sort of cultural label with a rather broad significance. The commercial motive, partly decontextualized, soon was to satisfy the passion for the ‘retro’ and then for the ‘vintage’ that gripped many societies”.

It’s interesting to note Kalifa’s comments on the number of novels that have been published in recent decades which are set in the Belle Époque or thereabouts. In particular he mentions the series of twelve published under the name of Claude Izner. They are crime stories with titles like The Montmartre Investigation, The Père Lachaise Mystery, The Marais Assassin, and involve the activities of a young bookseller and amateur detective as he unravels mysteries around Paris. I’ve only read the six translated into English, but have thoroughly enjoyed each one. They successfully re-create the mood and appearance of Paris in 1900. Or so I believe

Claude Izner is actually the pen-name of two sisters who are bouquinistes along the Seine. They know their city and its history, and many real-life characters appear in the novels. Do they cater to the nostalgic? Perhaps. Kalifa says: “Nostalgia is not history -  it reconstructs or recollects more than it explains – but nor is it programmed falsification. It organises memory, stimulates the imagination, and may also lift the veil here and there on forgotten figures or disdained realities”.

The Belle Époque is a thoroughly fascinating book with much to stimulate the imagination into reflecting on the past and how we view it. Dominique Kalifa ranges over a wide variety of subjects –literature, film, social history – and raises numerous questions about the seeming need for an idea of a  “vague (almost mythic) era of happiness and shared fulfilment”. This isn’t just limited to a specific place (Paris) or a specific time (1900), and appears to apply almost world-wide and in any period. It would easily be possible to bring up many examples from within the British Isles, ranging through books, television programmes, films, art exhibitions, and much more. I sometimes hear people talking about the 1960s and wonder if they’re referring to the same era that I lived through. But it does occur to me that, while many people will have in their minds certain ideas about the time of a Belle Époque they either experienced or wished they had, there is only one date, 1900, that can be identified with The Belle Époque that everybody knows.

Kalifa’s research is thorough, and his book has ample notes and a useful bibliography.