US reception lukewarm to BHL's America odyssey

1st February 2006, Comments 0 comments

WASHINGTON, Feb 1, 2006 (AFP) - French writer Bernard-Henri Levy's account of his journey through America in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville has received a lukewarm response in the United States with some critics panning the book as a self-serving road trip.

WASHINGTON, Feb 1, 2006 (AFP) -  French writer Bernard-Henri Levy's account of his journey through America in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville has received a lukewarm response in the United States with some critics panning the book as a self-serving road trip.

With his trademark black suit and open-buttoned white shirt, the celebrity intellectual known by his initials BHL has been on a publicity blitz through the country to promote the book 'American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville'.

From New York to California he is appearing at literary events and television and radio talk shows — sometimes with his statuesque French actress wife Arielle Dombasle —  earnestly portraying himself as the "anti anti-American" and recounting with a thick French accent his 10-month odyssey retracing the 1830s visit to America by another Frenchman, Tocqueville.

A few critics have welcomed the book as a thoughtful and informed analysis of a country grappling with its identity but several have written scathing reviews about Levy's musings saying they lack substance and depth.

One of the harshest reviews was made at the weekend in the New York Times by well known US radio host and author Garrison Keillor who described Levy as a "French writer with spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore".

"It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics and Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years," Keillor said of the book. His article, along with a picture of Levy, adorned the front page of the newspaper's influential book review section — an unusual feat for a foreign author.

Keillor's advice to Levy: "Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out," he wrote. "For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris.

"What was that all about? Were fat people involved?"

A review in Canada's Globe and Mail on Monday also showed annoyance with Levy's flamboyant style and sweeping generalizations.

"There's an inescapable aura of 'America, c'est moi' in Levy's ramblings," the review said. "Brilliance comes too easy to him, but in the end the Frenchman just doesn't get it: America is about other people," it added.

Another critique in the Los Angeles Times by Marianne Wiggins, a professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of 'Evidence of Things Unseen', which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, said Levy's musings failed to grasp everyday realities so well captured in Tocqueville's classic 'Democracy in America'.

"If Levy's book is good for one thing, it's that it makes us stop and think how blessed we are to have had a Frenchman lavish so much thought on our nation's future," Wiggins added. "Vive Monsieur de Tocqueville."

Levy dismissed the criticism as a reflection of "a malaise" in the United States and said he was delighted his book had ignited such debate.

"This book is aimed at provoking a debate among America's intellectuals," he told AFP in a telephone interview, challenging his detractors to criticize him face to face.

Will Murphy, Levy's editor at Random House, also dismissed the criticism and insisted that reaction to the book had by and large been positive.

"When America's top intellectuals and historians review this book, they find it very interesting and engaging," he told AFP.

He pointed to an article in the Boston Globe which described Levy as "extremely well informed" and which commended him for writing "quite lucid prose" as well as a review on the online magazine Salon.com.

Murphy said even the negative press was welcome as it gave Levy exposure.

"Everybody in America now knows who he is," he said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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