A Eulogy for One of the Greatest French Journalists – The Huffington Post 09/03/2010

logo huffingtonWhat remains of a writer’s life? What is worth preserving? At the very end, or even before that, in mid-life, when the end looms into view, what should be kept for the record? Some would say just the texts. Others the texts, maybe, but also the accompanying material that sheds indirect and decisive light on them, the diaries, intimate or not, the « individual journals, » as Léautaud called them, the correspondence, the rough drafts, the pigments that became my words, and a few secrets of the trade. And still others, a little more materialistic in their perception, would say yes, all that, but what about Hemingway’s laundry bills? What about the accounts kept by Baudelaire and his notary, Ancelle? And Stendhal’s suspenders, where he scribbled thoughts that occurred to him? And Barthes’s snapshots? Things Debord wrote as a child? What of all these things not strictly literary, texts written with the left hand, or not written at all, all these offshoots and stumbling blocks that never made it into a book? All the abutments, the zigzags, the minute inflections, the inimitable and contingent starbursts of free association one could consider (but more in reference to [19th century French writer] Marcel Schwob than to Plutarch) no less part of a writer’s legacy than his master works?

Marie Billetdoux’s conception of literature undoubtedly belongs to the latter category. But in this context, she has radicalized the procedures, the chosen standpoints, the daring choices and, more important, the expansion of the defense of literature as she perceives it. The result is this colossal book (C’est encore moi qui vous écrit, or, Me Writing Again, published by Stock) that editor Jean-Marc Roberts rightly terms a unique work of its kind, a book that in no manner resembles Léautaud’s diary, nor Amiel’s, nor the Goncourts’. And this is because it includes everything, absolutely everything, from the classic letter to her father to correspondence with the plumber, from the rough draft of a great novel to a court summons or a prenatal sonogram. Mind you, its singularity lies in the fact that everything seems to be at once haphazardly presented (a post-operative report from Val-de-Grace hospital segues into a conversation with François Nourissier or Dominique Bona, without any evident transition) and yet deliberately and almost cinematographically assembled (one has the feeling, in spite of it all, of following a plot, a breath of life like a long sentence that is so captivating you can’t put it down). Mallarmé in reverse. The Mallarmé of The Book, which the entire universe should boil down to, but a Mallarmé who would have added to his great poems the tiny production of Zizi and of Miss Satin, the archives of the Almanach des Muses, and even the rose garden at Vulaines-sur-Seine or the electricity bills from the rue de Rome. The dream of the Total Book, but without the religion that goes with it, without the aspect of the sacred letter, the hidden God, the agony of the writer and the sacerdotal role of the reader.

The Self at the controls then? The over-wrought Me at the ultimate stage of this egology that is a dominant tendency of the times? Yes and no. For the mystery of this book is that, through the increasingly sharp and narrow needle’s-eye view of the novelist, the reader hears the noise and the clatter of the world that lies beyond the murmur of a sometimes minuscule existence. A motel at Savannah Beach. A banquet in Sienna. The echo of political life, through Paul Guilbert, the man of her life and, actually, the main character of the book, one of the finest journalists, or, in his case, memorialists of the latter half of the 20th century. Literary life, of course. The enduring intrigue of relations between an author and his editor. The influential figures of the Parisian literary world. Its fleeting flavor-of-the-month phenomena. Its great voices and its shabby little deals. And the dominant figure of Paul, my friend Paul, whose death in 2002 marked the beginning of this book as well as the decision of the woman her readers knew as Raphaëlle Billetdoux to become Marie. That, also, is singular. Many writers have changed their names, but their first names? No doubt the author couldn’t but go on using her last name, for it was so much a part of what constitutes the main body of the work, laundry bills apart, a collection of love letters which, in French, are known as billets doux. But why change one’s first name? For a writer, is a first name the same as a last one? And is this a new version of the great heteronymous adventure? The author offers an initial explanation: I was tired of Raphaëlle, always associated with the ghost of Paul at her side. I dropped my first name the way you free yourself from a spell. There is another reason, one she does not mention but that is revealed in the book: Raphaëlle was both my public name and my secret name in my unwavering relationship with the beloved; when he died, it seemed right that this part of me should go with him. But there’s yet a third reason, one that makes more sense in the context of what the book expresses: when all is said and done, what have these forty years of life been if not a way of going from Billetdoux to Billetdoux, passing through the looking-glasses of life? In twelve books, what does one do besides bend with the century while remaining otherwise the same, or become identically different, which amounts to the same thing? A Marie-Raphaëlle Billetdoux who, having set off from her self in order to return to herself, today tells us about her odyssey. An enchantress, in turns Penelope, Calypso, Hermes, Telemachus, or Ulysses, who would invent a new genre that has little in common with the egological mirage, one I might dare to call, with her permission, egodyssey.

Bernard-Henri Lévy
translation by  Janet Lisop


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