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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted: May 9, 2010 07:16 PM

In Sartre's Words. The Day Proust and Joyce Met. The Death of François Baudot

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Jean-François Louette, Gilles Philippe, Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre and Juliette Simont have undertaken, for La Pléiade, the strange but ultimately beautiful project of collecting the "autobiographic works" of the 20th century writer who, along with Malraux, most constantly expressed his reticence, even his misgivings, even his frank abhorrence of autobiography as such. The Carnets de la drôle de guerre (Notebooks from a Phony War) follow Les Mots (The Words) and put them in perspective. The notes on tourism and Italy that were to have provided the framework for La reine Albemarle (Queen Albemarle) are there next to the eulogies for Nizan and Merleau Ponty, confirming once again that one never speaks so truly of oneself as when doing so through the mirror of another. Among the interviews at the end is the famous Autoportrait à 70 ans (Self-portrait at 70) published in le Nouvel observateur, just before the final revival in the dialogue with Benny Levy. A blend of real and false memories. A spiral of bad faith and intended authenticity. To live his books. To write his life. To lead the double adventure of his works and his existence, all the while claiming to break with the "inner life" and "free himself", as he put it, of Proust. The example of Leiris, of course. Confession as a game. Sincerity as an illusion. Therein lies the entire paradox of Sartre. And it Is to the editors' credit--Juliette Simont's very pertinent commentary concerning the Carnets--to have presented the peculiarity of this "un-intimate journal", these memories of a man who liked to think of himself as "without memory", this coherence of a life led by one who made it a rule and a calling to be consistently "unfaithful" to himself. This is the Sartre I recognize. This Stendhalian, literary, egotistical Sartre, whose echo was all too often drowned out by the great organs of commitment to causes, lives and laughs on these pages. Bravo. Thank you.

And, precisely, concerning Proust, three "scenes" have always intrigued me, as they seem to strongly substantiate the axiom of the alleged blindness of writers towards their great contemporaries. Bergson considering his "dear cousin's" chief merit to have been introducing him to earplugs. André Breton, proofreader--really, in the sense of printing house proofreader--of Du côté de Guermantes, assembling its "paperoles"*, all the while seemingly oblivious to the immensity of the undertaking. And then the botched meeting on May 22nd, 1922, just a few months before his death, with this other legendary figure passing through Paris, Joyce. Well, as to this third scene, these few hours of which we know nothing and where, once again, nothing apparently happened, this collision of two burned-out literary lions Joyce himself described as the classic example of a non-meeting, where each gives the other the once-over without actually seeing him, both almost intentionally ignoring each another, a book has restored its existence, its color, its flesh. Basically, Patrick Roegiers's La nuit du monde (Seuil) writes in their stead the double novel two writers are forced to improvise, even and especially if they do not appear to do so, when the trajectories of their respective orbits bring them briefly in contact with one another. The flawless radar of the former, bundled in his eight coats and still shivering. The mental white cane of the latter, just as infallible. And, in the intervening period, in this salon of the Majestic that has become, on the stage of the Ritz, the theatre of an inner film for two voices, its scenario as unpredictable as it is implacable, through the skillful grace of writing, the meeting we have dreamed of takes place.

He was, indeed, a character right out of Proust. He was, as Sartre would have also said, an individual "of no importance to the community" whose death, I imagine, will be given just a few lines in the papers. His name was François Baudot. He was an old friend I scarcely saw in the last months, but whose suicide at the age of 60 moves me deeply. I see him again, colossal and refined. Secret and dazzling. More snobbish than a character out of Thackeray, and more disdainful of snobbery than Thackeray himself. I see him again, in the Palace years, sensing like no one else the spirit of approaching times, but turning away at the precise moment when that spirit became dominant. I hear him, at dinners in the summer, unbeatable when it came to Italian painting and contemporary art, the history of France and its continuities, keys to the books of La Bruyère, Saint Simon, Balzac or, once again, Proust. I remember the refined and erudite Art d'être pauvre (The Art of Being Poor) this grand dandy, having, naturally, never written anything, finally decided to write, of which I was the publisher. I see him again, the last time we ran into each other, the swollen, too fleshy face that no longer looked like him--and there I should have seen the sign of a definitive conflict with this world. Few men will have felt their times to such a degree and at the same time detested them so intensely. Few of our contemporaries will have anticipated the rendez-vous of contemporary history as he, François Baudot, did, but without ever really finding his place there. It was said that Robert de Montesquieu died of being recognized, all too obviously, in A la recherche du temps perdu . Could it be that one dies, as well, of not having found his "Recherche" and to have remained, until the very end, a character seeking a purpose? A sort of Charles Haas who, not having met his Proust, would never become Swann and, consequently, would have developed an irremediable sorrow?


*Proust's "paperoles" were slips of paper, envelopes, or anything at hand, on which he wrote fragments that were then incorporated into his manuscripts.