CORRESPONDENCErnLetter From Parisrnby Curtis GaternExhibitionism as a Way of LifernIn mid-January, those Parisians (like myself)rnwho are still interested in literaryrnmatters were aroused from the smugrncomplacency in which we had been wallowingrnfor several weeks, as dazed survivorsrnof the millennial earthquake andrnthe pyrotechnic cancan put on by arnshameless Eiffel Tower, by an unexpectedrnthunderclap. The thunderclap was ignitedrnby Jean Daniel, founder and editorin-rnchief of France’s leading left-wingrnweekly, he Nouvel Observateur, with arnsensational cover informing us that “Afterrntwenty years of Purgatory SARTRE (inrnhuge red letters) is coming back.” But—rnand this was not the least paradoxical featurernof this surprising resurrection —thernphoto illustrating this affirmation showedrna somewhat stooped Jean-Paul Sartre, asrnthough burdened by the sheer weight ofrnhis existential cogitations, trudging awayrnfrom, rather than toward, the reader.rnThe prime mover of this literar}’ “happening”rn—its Vulcan, if not its Jupiterwasrnnot Jean Daniel, the self-crownedrnking of France’s “progressive” intelligentsia,rnbut rather its most flamboyantrnspokesman, the most dazzling of therncountry’s once new and young but nowrnincreasingly middle-aged philosophes, arnvirtuoso of epistemological dialectics,rnand (if I may be forgiven for lapsing intornFrench) a veritable saltimbanque dernI’exegese (an acrobat in the sleight-ofhandrnart of exegesis) named Bernard-rnHenri Levy. And the thundering boltrnwith which he aroused us from our afterthe-rnbinge somnolence was a 650-pagernbook entitled Le Steele de Sartre (“Sartre’srnCentury”), most curiously illustrated onrnthe cover —one more paradox!—by arnphotograph of the famous philosopher,rnshown about to remove an inseparablerncigarette from that garrulous nrouth, forrnonce elegantly dressed with a white shirtrncollar and dark tie, and, not least of all, anrnimpeccably cuff-linked shirtsleeve: asrnthough to remind us that this enfant terriblernof modern philosophy and self-proclaimedrnadvocate of the cause of therndowntrodden and oppressed was, afterrnall, or perhaps one should say before sornmuch else, a bourgeois—like the best (orrnthe worst) of us.rnhi literary, as in political, matters, it isrnalways hazardous to speak of “inevitable”rnhappenings. Particularly when what isrninvolved is a 660-page book that even arngenius could not have put together in arncouple of months, and which, by the author’srnown admission, was the product ofrnan intense intellectual “cohabitation”rnlasting all of three years. But from thernmoment (I think it was in late summer ofrnlast year) that some dimwits working forrnTime magazine decided that the loomingrnfin de siecle could not be celebrated properlyrnwithout the collective “wisdom” ofrnits editors and readers selecting a singlern”Man of the Century,” it was inevitablernthat some frustrated French super-patriotrnwould come up with a French candidaternfor this grotesque distinction. And surernenough, that master of the political platitude.rnPresident Jacques Chirac, whosernsimplest statements now have to be readrnfrom a prepared text rather than utteredrnoff-the-cuff, again demonstrated his geniusrnfor the commonplace by promptlyrnproposing—yes, you have guessed it! —rnCharles de Gaulle. It was no less inevitablernthat, faced with the catastrophicrnprospect of a major cultural devaluation,rnsomeone else should come up with thernname of a Frenchman capable of symbolizingrnthe huninous intelligence of thern20th century. And so, out of his magician’srnsleeve, Bernard-Henri Levy pulledrnan authentically French rabbit: Jean-rnPaul Sartre.rnIf the Januarv 13 issue of Le NouvelrnObservateur, containing an interviewrnwith the author and a number of extractsrnfrom “Sartre’s Century,” was the firstrnthunderbolt launched in this mediaticrnblitzkrieg, it was quickly followed by arnsecond and even louder bang, when thernauthor-conjurer was invited to take partrnin a special program exclusively devotedrnto Sartre by France’s most prestigious literar}’rntalk show. Bouillon de culture.rnIn France, as in the United States, literar’rnreputations (many of them bogus)rnare now made on the basis of histrionicrnability, talent for self-advocacy, and, ofrncourse, the quick-witted esprit tiiat is particularlyrnappreciated in the land that producedrnVoltaire. The successful author,rnlike so much else in this age of self-servingrntheatricalit)’, must become an actor, arnsalesman, a dramatic simplifier, and peddlerrnof his (or her) wares. I must confessrnthat I often find these talk-show sessionsrnexcruciatingly painful, so visiblj’ embarrassedrnare the timid souls (no’elists inrnparticular) who, in a couple of minutes,rnhave to provide fast-food resumes of theirrntales, plots, or themes, and so insufferablyrnpleased with themselves arc those whornare narcissistically inclined. This said, Irnmust take my hat off to one Frenchman,rnBernard Pivot, a talk-show wizard who,rnover a period of 30 years or more, hasrnraised many of these sessions to the levelrnof high interrogative art.rnYears ago, when he began his Frida-rnevening Apostrophes talk show onrnFrance’s second (partly state-subsidized)rnchannel. Pivot had no idea of what a standardrnfeature it would soon become in thcrnlandscape of French literature. Thernmain reason is tiiat, unlike others whornhave tried their hand at this game, Pivotrnactually reads (or has clc’er assistantsrnread) the newly published books of tiiernauthors he interrogates (usually four orrnfive at a time). How he manages to readrnso many books without becoming dazedrnor dizzv from overwork, and how hernmanages, witii the aid of a few slips of paper,rnto extract tiie most pertinent quotationsrnfrom each book discussed, is a recurringrnmystery, not to say a weckh’rnmiracle. But manage it he does—witiirnthe most extraordinary aplomb. And, indeed,rnwith such authority and prestigerntiiat Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once invitedrnhim to come and interview him at hisrnhome in Vermont.rnWhen, after 20 years of litcran,’ interrogations,rnBernard Pivot decided that hernhad had enough, he chose to end hisrnlong Apostrophes series witii a one-manrninterview accorded to a self-sacrificingrnnon-author: Georges Lubin, the meticulousrncollector and editor of GeorgernSand’s letters (4,000 inventoried lettersrnwhen he began; 18,000, published in 25rnvolumes, by the time he was through). Itrnwas a fitting finale and a well-earned tributernto painstaking scholarship. But thern34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn