Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Best Eaten Cold |
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Best Eaten Cold

Alain Finkielkraut needs a new name. Al Falco? If the most interesting of the recent French philosophers is ever to make an international impact, he can’t be called Alain Finkielkraut. For one thing, “Finkielkraut” doesn’t even sound French. For another, he has a one-part, unhyphenated first name. As things are, the distinctly less original Bernard-Henri Lévy appears in open-necked splendour on American talk-shows. Not only is Lévy’s latest book displayed in the vitrine of Sonia Rykiel’s boutique in the Boulevard Saint Germain, it is read on the lawn at Berkeley by beautiful female students dreaming enviously of his luxuriant hair-style.

None of this ever happens to Finkielkraut. Though he runs a nifty multimedia website and has published his fair share of books and pamphlets about love and sex, he has never shown any sign of rivalling Lévy’s skill with the hairdryer. But Finkielkraut is the one who can write. Listen to this, from his La sagesse de l’amour. I will do my best to catch its rhythm, but the tartness of the thought should come through anyway.

The more the other man distinguishes himself, the more I dislike him for the admiration that his exploits oblige me to bring him: one day he will have to reimburse me for the laurel wreaths with which I crown his successes and capacities. My praise demands revenge.

Not that Finkielkraut was first with the general idea. “It is not enough to succeed”, said Gore Vidal, “friends must be seen to have failed.” In thus echoing La Rochefoucauld, Vidal knew he was being mean. By identifying an impulse within himself he was guarding himself against any inclination to follow it up. Finkiekraut is probably doing the same here. Hence we can trace the parentage of the aphorism only half way back to La Rochefoucauld. When La Rochefoucauld said that we always take a certain amount of pleasure in the pain of others, he wasn’t pointing out a danger to be avoided: he was calling it a principle that always applies. Finkielkraut has merely pointed out a danger. We would be glad to think that it didn’t exist.

Inexorably, one is forced back to one’s own case, for good or ill. I would like to think that my own record is fairly good, or anyway became so with time. I can’t remember ever praising someone’s work and then taking revenge later. I can remember plenty of cases in which I dispraised someone’s work and then did the opposite later. Usually it was because I thought he had improved. Sometimes it was because I had finally realised that I had been simply wrong in the first place, and needed to make amends. The question arises of how, or why, I was initially wrong, and gave a false account of something worthy. Resentment and revenge might have come in there. Young writers don’t much like to see other young writers suddenly getting attention, and often they feel that older writers are blocking the sunlight.

As a perpetrator, I had a bad history in my youth of writing what the Germans call a Veriss — the knife job, the review that carves up the victim. At Sydney University one of my fellow students, a Polish immigrant, wrote a play and put it on, with himself in the lead. Reviewing the production for the student newspaper, I stamped him into the earth. Almost straight away I regretted the tone I took, but I should have regretted more than that. I had envied him his burst of publicity and his blonde girlfriend. I should have realised — a decade later, I did realise — that as a young writer still learning his second language, he had achieved something interesting in itself, even if it was not a very coherent play. It was he, after all, and not I, who had a right to comport himself as the incarnation of an historical saga of disaster and dislocation. When we met again in Europe, he praised me and my own achievements: the Chinese revenge. I learned a lesson. But I had learned it at his expense. I made it a rule for the future to be harsh only with the mighty.

It took me a long while to realise that the mighty have feelings too. A critic’s language should respect the creator’s sensitivity, which is always there even if he appears to have suppressed it in the interests of ambition. After I became an established writer myself, I found that contemporaries who had once praised me changed their tone. This reversal took time to get used to. In the interests of sanity, I tried to keep in mind that they might be right: perhaps my work was getting worse, or at any rate had failed to develop in ways that they expected. Occasionally I had to admit to myself that I had written something feeble, and I tried to be grateful that the fact had been pointed out. (Here I was following Karl Popper’s celebrated advice that we should welcome disagreement as a contribution to our process of reasoning: I was as yet unaware that Popper himself never welcomed it, and reacted to the slightest criticism like a cornered wildcat.) Gratitude strained the resources of humility, but it seemed right to try. More often, however, I was asked by my apparently neutral friends to entertain the possibility that my critics might be annoyed at the attention I was getting.

Rather than question the motives of the friends, it seemed better to question the motives of the critics: but not much better. Usually their arguments seemed coherent and even well informed. A critic who tells the world that your latest novel was not written by Tolstoy is bound to seem substantial if he proves that he has read Tolstoy, even if he fails to prove that he has read you. Some critics make a point of never delivering any praise at all. Aiming never to be quoted on a book jacket, they achieve their aim. Most books will not survive, so a reviewer who writes as if none of them will is sure to look good in the end. A wise writer will learn to live without accolades, although it is tough on the publisher, and eventually that will be tough on the writer. But outright abuse is a different matter. Where does it come from?

Well, one of the places it once came from was within you: a sad fact that needs to be remembered. The sad fact also hints at the answer. The abusive critic often is envious. But he is not necessarily envious of what you have achieved. He is envious of the noise you have made in achieving it. Safe in the limelight, you can afford to sound dedicated. You might even mean it when you borrow Tocqueville’s remark and say you prefer glory to success. But your critic would like the same luxury of choice for himself. Watching publicity work for you, he can’t help being annoyed that it hasn’t worked for him. After all, you are both living the literary life. So where is the justice? If, early on, in his own mind if not on paper, he acknowledged you as a colleague, his resentment will be all the more acute. So he takes revenge.

He will probably keep taking it. Almost any established writer will pick up a persistent tormentor the way a beautiful woman picks up a stalker. On the grand scale, Thomas Mann could never quite understand why the literary journalist Alfred Kerr — a comparatively minor figure but equipped with the sting and the turning circle of a wasp — kept coming back to the attack. Down here at my end of the rankings, I have acquired one young critic (not quite as young as he was, which seems to be making things worse) who goes out of his way to give it to me in the neck twice each time, once under his own name and once anonymously. His anonymous incarnation actually works my way, because the hatred is expressed in such extreme terms that anyone who reads it will probably pick up my book in the bookshop and leaf through it, just to see if I could possibly be that bad. But I can’t help looking on my tormentor’s expenditure of energy as a flaw in nature. What does he stand to gain?

If trapped at gunpoint, the mugger is quite likely to announce that he liked your early work. As far as you can remember, he wasn’t around to say this when your early work was coming out, but it is probably true: otherwise why would he have followed up on what you did next? He could have ignored it. That is what he wants the world to do now, and he could have done the same then. But he loved you once, and now he can’t let you go. One can only sympathise. Sympathy comes hard, however, when insult is added to injury. I was once abused personally for a full thousand words in the Sunday Times by a young television critic to whom I had refused an interview. He was off his beat, doubling as a reviewer of novels, and clearly thought that I, by having written a novel, was off my beat too. He might have been right. But in his use of language he sounded as if he was indicting Heinrich Himmler.

A year later he introduced himself at a party and apologised. He said my early writings had been an influence on his life. They had inspired him to become a journalist. I accepted the apology. (In those circumstances you should always accept the apology, because the apologist is swallowing a toad, and might regurgitate it all over you if thwarted.) But I couldn’t help thinking that a better order of events would have been to put the acknowledgment of my inspiring influence in print, so that the public could see it, and then call me a war criminal at the party, where it would have been a private matter.

Perhaps I should have told him that, but it would have been too late. Once upon a time he had praised me, and the day came when the praise demanded its revenge. For me, the object of this sequence of mistimed emotions, the most uncomfortable aspect was the consideration that if he had been so wrong the second time he might have been wrong the first time too. But one’s aim as a writer should go beyond preserving one’s self-esteem. Nothing can be done without it, but as an end in itself it always causes damage even to the writer of poetry, let alone to the writer of fiction; and to the writer of criticism it is quite ruinous. Rebecca West once argued that bad poems and bad novels can be counted on to get rid of themselves but bad criticism is a true calamity, breaking the chain of a long conversation by which sound opinion is transmitted through the generations. She might have added that the motor of bad criticism is almost always conceit, readily detectable by its interest in revenge.

(Australian Literary Review, June, 2007)


My ‘Al Falco’ joke was just another attempt to focus attention on the name of Main Finkielkraut, one of the modem-day French philosophers that serious English-speaking readers really should know more about. Since Raymond Aron, following on from Albert Camus, successfully completed the first stage in the long task of discrediting Sartre’s wilful political cretinism, French philosophy, despite the noise kicked up by the academically popular hoopla of the cultural theorists, has been steadily restoring itself to the centre of intelligent discussion. Jean-Francois Revel and Francois Furet between them were enough to make the French discussion essential listening. Unfortunately not many of the key books were translated. Today, Bernard-Henri Lévy is the most thoroughly publicized of the newer men. I, too, am impressed by the way he looks with the top buttons of his shirt undone, and I would sincerely like to have hair like his. (Would I also like to see multiple copies of my latest book displayed in the vitrine of Sonia Rykiel’s shop in the Boulevard Saint-Germain? You bet your life I would.) Just as Carla Bruni looks the way a songwriter should, so does Bernard-Henri Lévy look the part of the philosopher. But amid all the media coverage for his international chic, it is seldom mentioned that his final arrival at a liberal position was preceded by a history of the very stamp of bizarrerie that a writer like Revel was dedicated to taking apart. In the Sixties, Lévy, following the example of Althusser, seriously proclaimed that the only way forward from Stalinism was through Maoism. Thus the cool sage began his career as a preening enthusiast. At his best, he can examine his own past aberrations, but only on the assumption that they were historically inevitable: i.e. that to have been wrong was a mark of seriousness. There are tougher French thinkers who would be ashamed to perpetrate such a confidence trick. Finkielkraut is one of them, and we also ought to hear far more than we do of Michel Onfray. But the truly essential man right now is undoubtedly Pascal Bruckner. The central argument of his La tyrannie de la pénitence should be at the fingertips of every serious political commentator in English. I have to admit, however, that I myself would have been slow to discover him if Jonathan Meades, who lives in France, hadn’t tipped me off. If you really want to keep up, you have to be there. But it’s a counsel of despair to say that if we can’t be there, we needn’t try to find out what’s going on. One of the wonders of the modern world is how the British universities continue to turn out whole generations of ambitious literary critics who seem to have given up on learning to read French. One can understand their giving up on learning to speak French — I give up every two weeks — but if they have not made a decent beginning on learning to read it, you can’t help wondering what they were up to at university. And then they tell you: they were reading Derrida in English.