February 11, 2006

Seattle, Mon Amour

Bernard-Henri Levy occupies a position in France roughly comparable to...well, we don't have anyone like him. Rock star Bono comes close. Jon Stewart, maybe, except that BHL writes his own material. Sporting an unruly haircut, clad in the requisite uniform (black shirt, black blazer), he's a familiar figure on French TV, the embodiment of the Public Intellectual. Atlantic Monthly sent him on a year-long assignment to retrace the intellectual journey taken by de Tocqueville; the resulting tome, American Vertigo, has just been published, and BHL came to Seattle as part of the book tour.

American Vertigo books.JPG BHL at signing2.JPG

Turns out, it's his favorite town. "If I had to pick one American city to live in...it would be Seattle." He sees the Space Needle in the dark-pink sky, and it's his epiphany: "poetry and modernity...the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees and steel." He especially loves Le Pichet.

Unfortunately, the rest of American Vertigo is a dreadful collection of self-conscious and self-indulgent travel blogs (mega-malls, mega-churches, gun shows); it recycles every politically correct, liberal cliche of the past quarter century (despite latent racism, there's hope in the New South); it treats the obvious as if it were a treasured artifact (Guantanamo is hell on earth, Woody Allen is a genius). DeToqueville, at least, was breaking fresh ground.

Married to an American singer and actress, BHL clearly loves the US, but in a bull-headed way, a bit like a blindered horse. He sees what he wants to see, what fits in with his European perspective and Cartesian intellectual constructs. Like a guy trying to figure out what women want, he has a tin ear for the nuance of American culture.

While he's signing books at the University Bookstore, I ask him who, in America, might be qualified to write a similar book about his own country. He looks up, raises a Gallic eyebrow and mentions Adam Gopnick, whose dispatches to The New Yorker chronicling a five-year stint in France were published as From Paris to the Moon. But Gopnick, a graceful writer and an acute observer, won't ever challenge BHL's stature as a Public Intellectual. Then again, he won't have to interview Woody Allen, either.

Posted by Ronald Holden at February 11, 2006 12:16 AM

Kind words noted; many thanks. Just waiting for someone to mention Peter Mayle ...

Posted by: Ronald at February 11, 2006 8:01 AM

You hit the target on BHL with those three adjectives: "dreadful... self-conscious and self-indulgent." And most of the French would agree. The fact that he salutes Adam Gopnick says something about both of them, alas. Neither of them is a 21st century Alexis de Tocqueville. If France needs to be analyzed in that way, then send Richard Reeves, the former journalist who has lived in and knows France--and did a fine book on the U.S. by following Tocqueville's 19th century model.

Posted by: the Paris pal at February 11, 2006 12:51 AM