Perhaps because I am myself an émigré, I have never “written on immigration,” which is almost a fulltime vocation for many a political commentator whose intelligence and nous are otherwise indubitable. The temptation arises when that perennially controversial issue cuts across others closer to my heart, such as the freedom of speaking one’s mind or the hypocrisy of not doing so.
The other day I came upon a critique penned by a rather famous Frenchman by the name of Bernard-Henri Lévy. Now, Lévy is what we at Chronicles might call a stinking neocon – at least I might – and ordinarily I would have turned the page, certain I was extricating myself from the mire of grandiloquent twaddle, when a sentence caught my attention. This began by apostrophizing the “enormous provocation” of an author I had not heard of before, “who, envious of others’ success, has apparently just decided not, as Gide said, to ‘take himself for a great writer, as one may consider oneself a great hairdresser’ – in the past 30 years, he has published a great number of texts, which met with general indifference – but to pull out all the stops.”
As the hand creeping towards one’s wallet in the confusion of a crowded subway train may draw one’s attention by being preternaturally prehensile, so the contortionism of that sentence drew mine. Who is the enemy of the human race in Lévy’s sights, I wondered, who is the unworthy poseur he excoriates? My experience of such matters suggested that when a writer foams at the mouth at another writer’s envy of success and the indifference he deserves – all in a single sentence – more often than not he is doing down of a man of talent.
The man in question bears the name Richard Millet. Back in 1994 Millet’s book Le Sentiment du Langue (The Feeling of Language) won the prestigious essay prize of the Académie Française, and he is well known in French literary circles for his work as an editor with Gallimard, where he is credited with grooming recent winners of the legendary Prix Goncourt. Last year, however, Millet “pulled out all the stops,” in Lévy’s phrase, and incidentally got himself fired from Gallimard, by publishing an essay entitled Éloge Littéraire d’Anders Breivik (Literary Elogy of Anders Breivik) – a poetic enough title that the newsweekly L’Express characterized as a “gratuitous façade” for an “otherwise vindictive text.”
I do not read French, and there is no English translation of Millet’s essay, nor is there likely to be one –Anglo-American publishing being what it is –coming our way anytime soon. Hence, much as I’d like to, I cannot really praise Millet for the courage of his convictions without knowing what he has said in mitigation of the Norwegian’s act of mass murder. What I can do with perfect equanimity, however, without reading a single page of that essay, is ridicule its critics starting with Lévy. Their motives need no translation.
The underlying aim of my present post is to suggest to our sainted editor that an English translation of the essay be commissioned for urgent publication in Chronicles. If only because Bernard-Henri Lévy hates him so much, we want to know more about the author and the perfectly plausible truth of his “otherwise vindictive text.”