January 28, 2006

"There's no reason for it to exist in English..."

... this "sort of book," by a Frenchman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who did some traveling in America and then "worked up his notes," to be witheringly reviewed by Garrison Keillor in the NYT:
In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
The book is called "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville." (You can read the first chapter here.)

Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions....

America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure. "I still don't think there's reason to despair of this country. No matter how many derangements, dysfunctions, driftings there may be . . .
No matter how many words beginning with D in a sentence there may be...
"no matter how fragmented the political and social space may be; despite this nihilist hypertrophy of petty antiquarian memory; despite this hyperobesity - increasingly less metaphorical - of the great social bodies that form the invisible edifice of the country; despite the utter misery of the ghettos . . . I can't manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model."

Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming.
Ha. This reminds me of a book in my half-read books collection: "America," by Jean Baudrillard. I got some ways into it -- I was seriously trying to read it, you know, doing that thing readers do where we submit to merging our mind with the mind of another human being -- and I just had to shake myself out of it and say nothing here rings true.

Hmmm.... "America" has a blurb from a NYT book review on the back. "Since de Tocqueville...."

IN THE COMMENTS: An interesting process of melllowing on Lévy!


SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wade Garrett said...

That same author wrote a book about baseball, and his trip to Cooperstown, that made me wonder whether he had in fact ever watched a game. I'm tempted to draw conclusions about the French, but wouldn't that mean imitating this author, who I so clearly dislike?

MadisonMan said...

Withering is a great adjective to describe this hilarious panning of a book that must be so bad that you want to run out and buy it to see if anything can really be that bad.

Definitely something to check out the library. The public library, that American invention. Wonder if Levy ever went in one and saw fat people?

vw: kwzlpic

Unknown said...

I believe this is book is an expansion (if not identical) to a 3 part series Levy wrote for The Atlantic Monthly last year. My only lingering memory of the articles was every week the Atlantic hosted letter after letter from people Levy supposedly experienced horribleness with who denied his accounts almost entirely.

Anonymous said...

I read three or four installments in Atlantic Monthly. I didn't find anything really objectionable. He is a Frenchman who "retraced" Tocquevilles path through America. I'm surprised Keillor ripped it so "witheringly" Levy wanted to find the good in America and did although it was obvious that he was a stranger in a strange land. In other words, red state America was alien to him. One thing I remember in particular was that he was surprised to find that Americans were actually no fatter than many of his fellow Frenchmen.

Beth said...

Keillor is the perfect choice to pimp slap this fool. Brovo to the Times for putting him on the case.

Nothing like bad French writing to unite Americans left and right.

Pooh said...

Wow, that can stand side-by-side with any zero star Ebert review, though he failed to say "I hated this book. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated..."

Off to get a Freedom Dip w/ Au Jus sauce for lunch.

Hoots said...

I just had to shake myself out of it and say nothing here rings true

As my wife says when something is not really delicious, "I would rather not waste the calories."

knox said...

He worships Woody Allen and Charlie Rose

shoo. 'nuff said

sonicfrog said...

From the Keillor review:

He admires Warren Beatty, though he sees Beatty at a public event "among these rich and beautiful who, as always in America . . . form a masquerade of the living dead, each one more facelifted and mummified than the next, fierce, a little mutant-looking, inhuman, ultimately disappointing."

That's funny ('cause there's truth at the core).

Mike said...

That series of articles symbolized everything I hated about the Atlantic Monthly., It wasn't so much their leftward slant it was their open disdain for non-elitists. Another article was one about aging and how our lifespan is such a huge problem. It is a problem but it isn't a problem we want "solved".

Ricardo said...

Don't you think this Freedom Fry thing has gone far enough? Or did you put this story in here just to keep your pet hyenas in a froth until the next Alito story? Why don't you at least turn on "The Bachelor" on Monday nights, so you can see what Paris looks like.

Automatic_Wing said...

Yes, Ricardo, that Garrison Keillor is a real France-bashing, Fox news watching, rightwing, Red State nutcase. Good thing you're a bit more sophisticated than he.

vnjagvet said...

When Guy Noir gets you, you're got.

I guess Frenchy never made it to Lake Wobegon.

sasha barron said...

You are so insightful, Ann.

Synova said...

I grew up in Lake Wobegon. It's a fabulous place to be from.

As an adult, I've travelled and I hope that in my case it was broadening.

Part of that "travel", either of the virtual or geographical sort, has been contact with Europeans that are utterly convinced that Americans do not travel, therefore they do not *know*. I don't blame most of them for what amounts to elitism, but I'd suggest that focusing on Europe or France is outmoded... conservative, even. As though those places are more important to sophisticated understanding of the world than Asia or Central America or Australia.

Would I be enriched by knowing what Paris looks like? Certainly, though if I were given a choice I'd see what some other place looked like. Tokyo, probably, with maybe a side trip to Vladivostok.

Steve Donohue said...

Professor Althouse doesn't have any frothing pet hyenas- just frothing squirrels. And she rarely deploys them because they are not entirely trustworthy.

Jim said...

I read the excerpts in the Atlantic. I liked them.

I remember Henri explaining the American system of health care as being more complicated than the French, but just about as universal.

I thought it was pretty complimentary of the U.S. but what do I know? I grew up in Jesusland and we're all pretty dim.


ziemer said...

i haven't read levy's book, but i've read interviews with him, in which he is unabashedly pro-american.

this could be keillor's real problem. like all democrats, he hates america, hates americans who don't agree, and i guess he really hates french who are pro-american.

XWL said...

There was a good size puff piece in the LA Times last Sunday about this author and his latest book.

I had my own take on the article (I can't claim to have read the book, or to have any interest in doing so).

As Elizabeth said earlier in the comments, "Nothing like bad French writing to unite Americans left and right."

Palladian said...

Ziemer- You don't have to hate America (or France for that matter) to misunderstand it. That said, I'd have to read Levy's book to pass any judgment on it. I sort of like Levy, in that he's a good antidote to the repugnant and ridiculous Baudrillard. George Will wrote of Levy:

"Levy considers himself "of the left," but only because, he unhelpfully explains, of "my sensibility." However, he calls himself "anti-anti-American" and argues that the most virulent and long-lived French anti-Americanism is on the political right.

The left's anti-Americanism, which Levy calls "a routine of resentment," is a faded, almost perfunctory residue of a failed prophecy -- Marxist puerilities, the dated nature of which is not disguised by recasting the caricature of America in the vocabulary of anti-globalization. The right's anti-Americanism is more serious and passionate, for two reasons: It is an echo of fascism, which actually has more residual vitality than Marxism does. And the loathing of America, although morally obtuse, is at least a recoil against what America really is."

I think there's a germ of truth in this assessment- the undercurrent of xenophobic and fascistic tendencies in the general French character should not be ignored.

I quite like the characterization of leftist anti-Americanism as "a routine of resentment".

Ernst Blofeld said...

I read a couple of the installments in The Atlantic. He was missing the point, at length, while being a pretentious twit. It read like a parody of a French guy trying to figure out America.

For example, he pulls over on a freeway, parks on the shoulder, and takes a whiz. A cop stops by and tells him he can't park there. Levy ruminates/bitches about the cop's incipient fascism (I exaggerate a bit) and they strike up a brief conversation. Levy mentions that he's following Tocqueville's path. The cop brightens up and they exchange a few words about Tocqueville. It never dawns on Levy that it's pretty remarkable that a highway patrolman, a regular middle class blue-collar guy, has heard of and probably read Tocqueville. There's a story there--probably one involving the surprising extent to which many regular-guy Americans are interested in history and the founding--but it sails right over Levy's head.

He may say some kind things about America, but that doesn't make him a modern Tocqueville, or even a very good travel writer.

bearbee said...

Author is scheduled to appear today Sunday on C-Span2 3:58pm est

ziemer said...

i had no plans to read this book, but it all sounds rather amusing now. maybe i should...with the expectation that the fellow really didn't understand much.

Ann Althouse said...

Ziemer: I've been thinking the same thing. Isn't this the way Bill Bryson does his books? Did Bryson understand Australia or did he just work up his notes? Whatever -- "In a Sunburned Country" is a great read.

ziemer said...

never read bryson, so i don't know.

what i'm picturing from some of these posts though is sort of on the line of "candide" by voltaire, with levy as the old fool (pandarus or something), seeing everything and learning nothing.

miklos rosza said...

I haven't read Henri-Levy's book, but I don't trust Keillor's review of it. Henri-Levy's "Barbarism with a Human Face" was controversial in the 1980s for criticizing the Soviet Union and Stalinism -- and Henri-Levy was considered to be on the Left, so he was seen as betraying the team.

In any case, any time there's an editorial by him in a French paper it's sure to be interesting and not to take any prisoners.

He's also interesting on his feelings about being a Jew.

Keillor on the other hand has never spoken to me. I was exposed to his work more than I would have liked, via NPR, and I despised it. He has a smug voice. Who was that comedian who smashed watermelons onstage? To his audience he could do no wrong.

Keillor's political comments of the last few years have done nothing to raise my opinion of his intelligence.

But yes, Ann, "America" by Baudrillard was Baudrillard at his worst. We agree there.

James said...

Sippicancottage and others are wrong to claim that the book is persistently anti-American. It is not. On the other hand, Ziemer is wrong to claim that Keillor dislikes the book because it is too pro-American. I haven't read the book, but I did read the series of Atlantic articles (which, if I recall correctly, ran to five or six installments rather than three). The articles were neither anti-American nor pro-American, they were simply pretentious, overwritten, and constantly making absurd generalizations. (A trip by Bud Selig to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier becomes the starting place for a bizarre meditation on the alleged patriotic and quasi-religious significance of the "Pope of baseball" (he actually called him that) performing a patriotic act. You would have thought that this trip was a nationallly publicized event, on the front page of every paper and the first story on the network news, when in reality I never heard of it and I doubt if one person in a thousand had. Plus, football is the most popular sport these days - a development I personally lament, but I can't deny it's true.)

ziemer said...


how about this?

keillor resents the book because levy explored things that are uniquely american, when in keillor's view, levy should have come met with him, and listened to his socialist rants, even though levy could go to any paris cafe and listen to the same gibberish.

Sigivald said...

You earnestly tried to read Baudrillard?

My condolences; I gave up not even a chapter into "The Transparency of Evil". (And I believe, but am not sure, that I at one point attempted "America" or read some excerpts therefrom, with more success, but no more pleasure.)

I can only hope with utmost sincerity that he's more comprehensible in the original French. In English translation, at any rate, the man simply cannot express... anything, clearly and simply.

(This is forgiveable, of course, to some extent, when speaking of things that are very complex and muddied, but the better writers and philosophers - in whose ranks he is variously classed - have done a far better job.

The obvious example would be Nietzsche, who confuses his readers with his ideas rather than his expression of them, in most cases.)

XWL said...

Having watched the CSPAN discussion between Levy and Kristol, Levy isn't anti-American, but he came across as reflexively anti-Bush, anti-faith, and for a self described 'intellectual', ill informed.

Plus his formulation of ideas in English don't translate well.

It might have been a problem with speaking extemporaneously as a francophone, and his prose could be superior, but I doubt it.

What prose I've read was similar to his wandering speech.

The discussion was hosted by ,SAIS, and the backdrop directly behind Levy in the camera shot featured part of the word, Bologna, and that's what I thought most of the time he was speaking, baloney.

James said...

Ziemer: I'm sorry, but I think your interpretation doesn't hold up if one actually reads the articles. Levy is a Communist or a terrorist sympathizer, but he is clearly a man of the Left, and I find the idea that Levy is to the right of a garden-variety American liberal like Keillor (of whom I am not a fan, by the way), or more in touch with the average American than Keillor (whose humor has always had a "Middle America" setting) to be unlikely. For an example of Levy's liberalism, see the book's condscending treatment of Bill Kristol. Levy accuses Kristol and THE WEEKLY STANDARD of not really believing what they profess about abortion, homosexuality, Clinton, etc., and better yet, he "senses" that Kristol is sending him subliminal signals that this is true!

gerardemaison said...

I was present last night ( 02/05/06)in Capitola,CA,to a presentation by Mr Levy in person, of his latest book "American Vertigo". I thought
he was very good, laid back, sincere, unpretentious, responsive and quite open to criticisms. I have read his book and of course I agree it is somewhat shallow but nevertheless always entertaining. But, in spite of his partly clouded glasses of the Mitterrand-style "Old French Left" ,he has perceived the enormous vitality and ability to improve itself of American Democracy. This often-repeated perception of his, I did sense as coming from an honest observer who has also become a friend. Give him a break !