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America, in the eyes of a Frenchman

Bernard-Henri Levy picks up Tocqueville's mission.

January 22, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

Paris — THERE is an emblematic episode in "American Vertigo," the forthcoming book by Bernard-Henri Levy about his literary odyssey across America.

While rolling west near Battle Creek, Mich., on Interstate 94, the French celebrity intellectual stopped to relieve himself at the roadside. A state highway patrolman zoomed up with lights flashing and a culture clash ensued: Parisians accept public urination even in nice neighborhoods, while Americans see it as an activity confined to drunks, vagrants and madmen.

The patrolman told Levy he was in trouble. Tensions escalated. Then Levy explained he was on a modern-day version of the journey that his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville recounted in the 1835 "Democracy in America."

"[The officer], who for all I know was getting ready to book me for inappropriate behavior, public sexual display or, in any case, 'loitering with intent,' looks at me with sudden affability and begins to ask me what, in my opinion, remains valid in Tocqueville's analysis," Levy writes. "What better reply to those who keep telling us that America is a country of backward cowboys and uneducated people? And what a magnificent challenge to those who want to use Francophobia these days as the last word in our trans-Atlantic relations."

On Tuesday, Random House will release "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville," with much fanfare. In an unusual and commercially risky move, the book will be published in the United States (in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, who also translated his 2004 book "War, Evil, and the End of History") before it comes out in France.

"I wrote it for America, about America, so it seemed rather natural," Levy said, sipping tea recently in his elegant apartment on Boulevard St. Germain. "It's a more or less faithful mirror ... that I hold out to Americans. It seems fair to me that Americans should be the first to say whether they recognize themselves or not. Also, I had the sentiment of having been really welcomed by this country, so I wanted to give something back."

Here in France, Levy tops bestseller lists thanks to his 30 books and a swashbuckling, jet-setting, skillfully cultivated image that alternately annoys and enthralls a widespread audience. He is the subject of three recent unauthorized biographies.

In contrast, he's not a household name among Americans, who do not share the French reverence for philosophers. Some U.S. readers know Levy's works, such as "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?," a 2003 book about the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter that drew attention -- and debate over its conspiracy theories and use of fictional techniques.

The Tocqueville book builds on a series of articles last year in the Atlantic Monthly. Levy, 57, and his publishers are gambling that his star power as well as his ideas will translate. The launch of his national book tour in New York will feature talk-show appearances, a reception hosted by the French ambassador and events at top venues such as the New York Public Library, where he will give a reading with Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

"One of the things that makes Levy so interesting is that he's a philosopher who seeks to address a broad audience," Will Murphy, the book's editor at Random House, said by telephone from New York. "We don't have an equivalent figure in the U.S.... He deserves to be better known here. An author like that is good for the intellectual conversation here."

The idea for the neo-Tocquevillian expedition began 2 1/2 years ago with the editors of the Atlantic Monthly. Levy was initially reluctant. He was not particularly well versed in Tocqueville, who does not have the same aura here, ironically, as in the United States. Levy's mix of reportage and philosophy had always focused on hot spots such as Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I told them: 'I like the field, but the battlefield,' " he recalled. "And they had an extraordinary reply: 'But America is a battlefield.' "

In the end, he decided that it was the right idea at the right time.

"The country was at a crossroads," he said. "A political, ideological battle unlike anything in the past 40 years, since the events of the 1960s. And it seemed extremely interesting to capture the reality of America at this moment of simultaneous uncertainty, political and geopolitical upheaval, a renewal of all ideas, and a major internal clash ... all this creates a vertigo that is always interesting."

It was also an interesting, if not dire, moment for the transatlantic alliance, with pessimists warning of a chasm steadily dividing the West. Not only do Europeans and Americans quarrel about the war in Iraq, they clash on cultural issues such as the death penalty, global warming, religion in public life. Many Europeans, especially leftists, have come to accept a caricature of Americans as fat, imperialist, fundamentalist goons.

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Not one for cliches

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