This should have been marketed and sold as a booklet. Essay selections rarely work in book form, few writers can pull this off and Bernard Henri Levy is no exception. I would have been disappointed, except Levy began the book with a 50 page “introduction” of French intellectualism from the Dreyfus affair until the fall of the Soviet Union.
That booklet was worth the purchase of the book. It should have been marketed alone, pulled from the following articles and one-page reflections on this or that intellectual and sold cheaply to those who care about liberal intellectualism (liberal in its correct form – I always have to say that, alas). Beginning from the Dreyfus affair, which is when Levy suggests French liberal intellectuals first organized to defend an innocent man, it then walks the reader through the following 100 years of flirtations with both Communism (and the USSR) and Fascism. Sarte and Camus and so many others who couldn’t resist the alure of socialism, and how they realized their mistakes – usually too late – and why the left has such a soft spot for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and Karl Marx.
French, Parisian intellectualism is something we writers love to think about. We walk down the Seine on our way to Shakespeare and Company and marvel at the grandeur of Paris in Spring. If Berlin is Europe’s engine, London is its pocketbook, Paris is its brain and its soul. There’s no place (that I know of) in the US that rivals the feeling of being somewhere that Paris has; especially for an intellectual. The United States doesn’t give place to intellectuals like France does; if you say you are a writer to your fellow passenger on the Metro they will look at you with a yawn and pull their Iphone closer to their nose.
But not in Paris.
The only other places I’ve felt similar in the world are Buenos Aires, for the Spanish speaking world and Yerevan for Eurasia. Places where I, somehow, have felt free.