The first thing French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy noticed were the flags—"a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones...." This was in 2004, on the Frenchman's tour of America. Since 9/11, Americans have taken this patriotic expression for granted, but Lévy, l'étranger, did not. He called it a "strange obsession and wondered, 'Is [it] a... response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating...?' "
It's that last bit—Lévy's habit of following an objective, even dispassionate observation with a surprisingly empathic, and often contrary, formulation—that encouraged the Atlantic Monthly to invite him to travel throughout America and write his observations about the country's culture, place and history, just as another famous Frenchman did in the 19th century. In late January, Random House will publish American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, which incorporates the essays plus much new material.
A couple of years ago, the editors at Atlantic Monthly were looking for a fresh perspective on the global conflict that embroiled America. According to managing editor Cullen Murphy, there was a consensus that "Americans needed to better understand how the country looks to outsiders. To that end, the discussion led to who might be the ideal writer, "a sympathetic but also cold-eyed observer who had no compunction about reporting both the good and the bad as he or she saw it—a latter-day Tocqueville, in a sense."
Lévy, a famed French philosopher/ journalist, was a natural choice. A self-described "anti-anti-Americanist" in a country whose intellectuals often demonize the United States, Lévy has been a media darling for decades. He is a bestselling author in his home country, a talking head on French TV, and he's married to a French movie star, Airelle Dombasle. That he penned Who Killed Daniel Pearl?—an investigation into the death of a Wall Streetreporter that many considered a journalistic tour-de-force—didn't hurt his prospects. The Daniel Pearl book, despite being published by the relatively small Melville House, made a splash in the U.S., with nearly 50,000 copies in print, and has been widely reviewed.
Random House hopes that the glamorous French intellectual, who will tour here, will attract even more readers with this classic tracing of Tocqueville, whose 19th-century observations remain a staple of American studies curricula. The media, at least, should have a field day, if Lévy's reception elsewhere is any indication—for "BHL" (as he's known in France) has been endlessly and colorfully written about. A profile in Britain's Observerwas titled "Je Suis Un Superstar," and another famed headline reflecting his supposed vanity is often cited: "God is dead, but my hair is perfect."
BHL is no lightweight, however. He has been reporting on, and fighting, bad guys his entire career. Angered by the Marxist violence he witnessed in Bangladesh in the 1970s, Lévy came to public attention in 1977, at the age of 28, with the publication of his controversial anti-Marxist tract, Barbarism with a Human Face (published in the U.S. by Harper & Row in 1979).Melville House's Dennis Johnson says, "Lévy's journalism is what's always overlooked. He was always ahead of the curve."
American Vertigo(which includes a post-Katrina return to New Orleans) is a panoramic portrait of this vast country in only 320 pages. Packed with memorable scenes—such as an ecstatic gospel convention in Memphis with opulently dressed women and top-hatted men—as well as striking portraits of Americans both average and mighty (Wall Street tycoon Henry Kravis), the book also offers Lévy's fresh interpretations of some stale American myths: the Kennedys, he posits, are not our royalty but rather figures out of a Greek tragedy.
Lévy's conclusions include some sharp criticisms, most notably of American "obesity"—one that reflects more of a spiritual hunger than a physical one: he means our obsession with supersizing not just burgers but everything from megachurches to the Mall of America.
But despite the flaws he uncovers, Lévy remains wild about America: he loves its music, movies and literature; he loves Seattle, Savannah and New Orleans; and he loves America's democracy. "My relationship to this country, it is like in families," he says during our conversation, "maybe like Americans themselves. The more I am critical, the more I love America."
Though others question his credentials, Lévy still sees himself, a former soixante-huitard, an activist in France's 1968 uprisings, as a man of the left, and he despairs of the anemic state of American progressives, who he sees as more concerned with fund-raising than with ideas. Yet he remains optimistic. "I'm not sure the movement toward the right is so extreme as the commentators say. Bush's election might also be," he says, reverting to French, "le chant du cygne," the right's swan song.
America is a place Lévy thought he knew. As a youthful fan of Elvis Presley and rock and roll in the 1950s, Lévy made his first trip to the U.S., to Memphis, at 15. But, he says in his still Frenchified English, he spent "one of the most strange and passionating years of my life" learning how little he knew. American Vertigo, he says, is "really the story of a discovery of America."
One of the traits that Lévy admires about America may help explain why he is outside the mainstream of France: America, he says, is a nation of immigrants, and its people do not believe they have "a place in the world" that they deserve "since eternity and for eternity." As a French Jew, he shares this sense of unrootedness: "I feel French because of the language and the literature. But apart from that, I'm not sure I feel much more French than American or anything else."
And how will Americans feel about Lévy? If the response to his Atlanticarticles is any indication, he won't go unnoticed. He says he received thousands of e-mails, letters and phone calls from everywhere he visited, from New Orleans and Alabama to Buffalo and Detroit. The Atlantic's Murphy says the magazine also had "boisterous" praise as well as disagreement from both left and right. The Atlanticarticles were an introduction. But, Lévy concludes, "the real rendezvous is now." Random House couldn't agree more.