PICTURE a group of friends reading through a play

together, enjoying a quiet evening--during the German occupation of Paris. The script has been written by Picasso, who relaxes in the small apartment, along with the cubist painter Braque, actor Jean Louis Barrault, Simone de Beauvoir, the young psychologist Jacques Lacan, and the critic Georges Bataille. The actors include Jean- Paul Sartre; the director is Albert Camus.

Ah, there were giants in those days! In The Left Bank Herbert Lottman surveys the intellectual and political scene in Paris from 1930 to 1950, a time when writers could be adventurers (Andr,e Malraux), literary critics become Socialist prime ministers (L,eon Blum), pederasts be courted by the Soviet Union (Andre Gide), and virulent antisemites compose virtuoso fiction (Celine). Even for those whose acquaintance with French culture stops with high-school memories of The Stranger, this book makes exciting, often inspiring reading.

Lottman, the Paris correspondent of Publishers Weekly, recounts his panoramic history in a staccato, fact-filled, journalistic prose. He not only explains the significance of Daniel Halevy's salon, Adrienne Monnier's bookstore, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, and the Cafe de Flore, but he tells you exactly where these places were located, who frequented them, and where everyone lived.

Behind everything at this time presses the necessity for commitment, whether to Marxism or Fascism. Most readers remember the intellectuals who traveled to the left; but Lottman also pays attention to those who followed the right: the charismatic Drieu de la Rochelle (who transformed the NRF into a collaborationist magazine yet became the godfather of Malraux's son), handsome Robert Brassilach (shot for treason in 1945), Celine, and more hesitant German-sympathizers such as the diarists Paul Leautaud and Marcel Jouhandeau.

Although he interprets the broad waves and crests of this period--writers congresses, the Spanish Civil War, the Resistance, Existentialism--Lottman's special talent is for the telling fact or anecdote. In 1936 the homosexual Andre Gide travels to Russia where he finds himself provided with a swimming pool--brimming with handsome Red Army soldiers. Celine observes that the Spanish Civil War is "a funny kind of war" when writers are allowed "to walk in and out of it like a railroad waiting room." Andre and Clara Malraux, visiting Moscow, stand next to Stalin at a writer's congress; later, Malraux asks his wife what she thought of the Russian leader. "I wouldn't mind," she replies, "spending a little time with him in bed." During a general strike, when Gide was still aligned with the hard Left, a construction worker was heard to exclaim: "What we need is rifles, to march into the rich neighborhoods. That's the only place that serious things can be done. And then we need someone to lead us, a chief, a real man . . . say a guy like Gide." A couplet encapsulates the wartime writer's options: "Some blew up trains./ Others touched up quatrains."

As an introduction to a period in French history already legendary, The Left Bank is superb, a transatlantic companion work to Daniel Aaron's classic Writers on the Left.