BOOK REVIEW / Phoenix dressed by Dior: 'Paris after the Liberation, 1944-1949' - Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper: Hamish Hamilton, 20 pounds

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AT TIMES during this absorbing book, one gets a touch weary of the clipped tones of Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford, quipping deliciously on the curious ways of Communists, the adulteries of friends, the panic of Cold War alarmists. I quite warmed to the woman who stared glintingly at Nancy Mitford's new-look suit and asked if it was from Dior (knowing the prices): 'Between the Communists and the menageres,' Nancy sighed, 'one's life is one long risk.' Women in a Montmartre street market ripped the dress from a Dior model, outraged at her flaunting the annual income of several families on her back.

Top Brits could be chillingly flippant. In 1946 Noel Coward gave the Duke and Duchess of Windsor 'a delicious dinner: consomme, marrow on toast, grilled langouste, tournedos with sauce bearnaise and chocolate souffle. Poor starving France.' At the time one grapefruit cost four days' wages; in the 1947 freeze children queued for milk, boiled in steaming vats against the threat of TB; in summer reeking trains from Normandy brought black market suitcases, oozing Camembert and dripping blood from joints of meat.

This book explores all worlds, from tenements, brothels and factories, jazz cellars and studios, to salons, law- courts and the fossilised chateaux of vielle France. Although Duff Cooper, then British Ambassador, is the grandfather of one of the authors, this is not top-down history. Instead, his charm, his string of mistresses, his diplomatic urbanity - ground between Churchill and De Gaulle - provide an ironic counterpoint to the throes of French history. At the signing of the Treaties with Italy, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Finland in 1947: 'The process took the whole day, so Duff Cooper read Graham Greene's A Gun for Sale during the intervals. The final ceremony took place in the salon d'Horloge of the Quai d'Orsay, on the table where the wounded Robespierre had been laid before he was guillotined.'

The gossip of diplomats also emphasises how little the fate of France was in French hands: at private meetings and public conferences (often through a blur of alcohol) Russians, British and Americans staked their bids for post-war power. To many Parisians the city still seemed occupied, with German guns replaced by Coca-

Cola wars. After the GIs (first feted then hated), came the American military and diplomatic staffs with their lavish 'K' rations, then the artists and writers - Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright joining the old Hemingway band - then the 3,000 bureaucrats of the Marshall Plan, and finally the tourists, swooning to Juliette Greco, bowing to Picasso and glorying in the ever-falling franc. In 1948 Sartre and De Beauvoir fled the Cafe Flore, which, said the New Yorker's Janet Flanner, had become 'a drugstore for pretty upstate girls in unbecoming blue denim pants and their Middle Western dates, most of whom are growing hasty Beaux-Arts beards'.

In 1948 Sartre and his compatriots had harsher priorities. France was riven by strikes and shaken by double paranoia, the left fearing America, the right fearing Red Army tanks. From Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises - where visitors claimed it was always raining - De Gaulle thundered gloomily about re-strengthened Germany. Gaullists and Communists clashed: civil war was feared. By this time, wave upon wave of action and reaction had already swept past, and after the ecstasy of liberation came the epuration - the grim vengeance on collaborators, fuelled by the sight of returning deportees singing the Marseillaise at the Gare de l'Est before stunned, weeping crowds.

Beevor and Cooper give a rich, many-layered account, selecting from official documents, private archives, memoirs and histories with a wonderful lightness of touch, so that the most complex events become clear; we know all the main players, the conspiracies, the long-held grudges. Although unsympathetic to the French Communist party, for example, they vividly convey the logic of the leaders' Jesuitical twists under the changing directives from Moscow, or the agonising dilemmas of Party intellectuals after the revelations of the Kravchenko trial.

The crisp narrative makes compulsive, quotable reading. Familiarity allows manifold ironies - like the Rothschild butler who, when asked who came to the German receptions when the house was requisitioned, said: 'The same people - the same as before the war'; or Charles Maurras, leader of Action Francaise, crying 'It's the revenge of Dreyfus' when sentenced to life imprisonment. At each stage, the rancour and pain smouldering from the Vichy era, and earlier, ignites again. It still does: only in the last decade has France really admitted the degree of fascism in the Petain regime and the role of the French themselves in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths.

Paris After the Liberation acknowledges such tragedies - and hints at others in Vietnam and Algeria - while giving a vibrant sense of conversation and cafes, theatres and sex, the resilience and resistance of 'ordinary life'. The story is harsh, but amid the grey ('every shade from zinc to soot', as the authors say of the cobbled slums) runs a longing for something fine and flamboyant rising from the ashes. In this context, black-marketeering, Dior dresses, wild affairs and the intellectual zest of St Germain des Pres make tough, paradoxical sense. But in the face of robust Parisian self-interest all the clashing 'isms' seem doomed. Looking forward to 1968 and the exit of De Gaulle, Beevor and Cooper themselves conclude that 'radical ideas had failed to overcome the bourgeoisie'. Their convincing, entertaining history helps us to understand why.

(Photograph omitted)