Poison pens

Never before has a single writer attracted so many critical biographies in such a short period of time. But France's Bernard-Henri Levy, the target, isn't too concerned.

By Amelia Gentleman
Published October 29, 2004 6:02PM (UTC)
main article image

Rich, intelligent and reasonably photogenic, it is not surprising that France's most media-friendly philosopher is the target of the occasional attack. But the scale of the assault that is being mounted on Bernard-Henri Lévy this autumn has shocked and delighted Paris' literary elite. Seven books attacking the writer's methods, questioning his intellectual achievements and peering into the origins of his personal fortune are due to be published over the next few months. Several of the works promise to unmask him as an "intellectual imposter," and a series of libel suits is already underway as he struggles to save his academic reputation from ruin.

For three decades Lévy has reigned supreme as the demigod of the television debate show, famous less for his intellectual standpoints than for his beautifully coifed hair and fondness for displaying more chest than is polite in scholarly circles. Now his critics are questioning whether BHL, as he is semi-affectionately known, really deserves to occupy the space vacated by Derrida, Sartre, Foucault and other greats of French postwar philosophy.


The authors of a book that dissects his research methods, "Le BA BA de BHL" ("The ABC of BHL"), say they were motivated by impatience with his "massive ego," his relentless promotion of himself as "France's greatest intellectual" and the unquestioning adulation usually accorded him in the French media. The books reflect an outburst of irritation with the powerful cult of personality Lévy has created for himself over the decades, based as much on his glamorous lifestyle as on his publications.

More likely to be feted by Paris Match than by contemporary philosophy journals, Lévy appears regularly on the diary pages of French glossy magazines, his arm wrapped around the famously narrow waist of his third wife, actor Arielle Dombasle. "It's not possible for the media to hold him up as a great intellectual when he isn't recognized by any philosopher or university," Erwan Poiraud, a professor of political science in Paris, whose doctoral thesis is titled: "BHL -- a media intellectual," told Le Parisien. "His strength is in rapid thought. Where a philosopher might take five years to complete a nuanced work, he takes four months to write a book, which comes ready-made for television and radio."

Richard Labevière, a journalist with French radio, and Bruno Jeanmart, philosopher at Grenoble University, have already finished work on their book, uncompromisingly titled "The Absence of Thought in Bernard-Henri Lévy," which concludes that Lévy's work is "hollow."


Meanwhile Nicolas Beau, a journalist with the satirical and investigative weekly paper Le Canard Enchainée, has collaborated with another writer, Olivier Toscer, to produce a study of the origins of the writer's fortune, which is estimated at around 150 million euros (about $191 million).

Much of this wave of interest has been triggered by Lévy's controversial book on the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan, "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" Classed as a "romanquete" -- half novel, half investigation -- the book, published last year, upset Pearl's family with its fictionalized re-creation of his death. It was also criticized for its errors and extravagant conclusion -- that Pearl was killed because knew too much about al-Qaida's attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

Most alarming for Lévy is the imminent publication of a book by Philippe Cohen, the coauthor of "The Hidden Face of Le Monde," a bestselling and aggressive investigation into the newspaper, which caused a sensation last year. The latest work is thought to stretch to more than 500 pages and to analyze the writer's private life in detail.


Lévy refused to make any comment on the biographies when contacted Thursday, but he has told friends that he is not wounded by the onslaught and that he sees this explosion of interest in him as an enormous compliment, pointing out that never before has a single writer attracted so many biographies in such a short period of time. He says that at 56 he has learnt how to deal with criticism. "When one attacks BHL one does not attack Bernard-Henri Lévy ... BHL is a caricature," he said recently.

Amelia Gentleman

MORE FROM Amelia Gentleman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------