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Justine Levy, Daughter of French Public Intellectual BHL, Writes What She Knows: Life

Justine Levy’s topics: Love, loss, motherhood, fear and joy, are close to home


French author Justin Levy’s newest book, Gaiety, explores the joys and anxieties of motherhood. Like many of her previous titles: The Rendezvous (1997), Rein de Grave (Nothing Serious) and Mauvaise Fille (Bad Girl 2009), there are parallels to the life of the author who, as the daughter of controversial public intellectual Bernard Henri Levy and model Isabelle Doutreluigne, has lived her life in the public eye even prior to publishing her first novel in 1997.

After a painful divorce form Raphael Enthroven, son of one of her father’s best friends, Jean Paul Enthroven, Justine fell in love with Patrick Mille and after giving birth to two children with him, has added the chapter of motherhood to her life’s story. Her own childhood, Levy says, was trying, especially having to endure arguments between her mother and her father. Because of the constant fights, Levy admitted to Closer, “I’m a little paranoid.”

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Concerning her father, Levy says, “I do not read what he publishes. I do not always agree with his positions, but I still support him.” She describes her father, known by his initials BHL to the French public, as “very brave and very adventurous.”

Bernard Henri Levy was born in Algeria to a prosperous Jewish family in 1948. He was a proponent of the Nouveaux Philosophes (the New Philosophers), which were critical of Marxism and Socialism. He studied with the philosopher Jacques Derrida and was a war correspondent for Combat, a publication founded by the writer Albert Camus during the Nazi Occupation of France.

In the 1990s, Levy was outspoken in advocating that Europe and the United States take military action in Bosnia when it was learned that the Serbians were keeping Bosnian Muslims in POW camps. He said it was a moral imperative and applying the lessons of the Holocaust not to allow the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims to happen. Levy has been a proud Zionist and praised Israel’s Defense Forces, “I have never seen such a democratic army which asks itself so many moral questions. There is something unusually vital about the Israeli democracy.”

Bernard Henri Levy has attracted much criticism, not only for his views, but for aspects of his writing which reflect, according to some, a kind of arrogance. In response to his book Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, which took Levy on an investigation spanning several countries after which he stated his conclusion that Pearl was killed because he knew too much about Pakistan’s ties with Al-Quaeda, Pearl’s widow Marianne said, “(Levy) is a man whose intelligence is destroyed by his ego.”

He was famously panned by folksy American man of letters, Garrison Keillor on the cover of The New York Times Book Review with his assessment of Levy’s American Vertigo: In the Footsteps of De Tocqueville. Keillor said the book was not about America, but about France and the French view of wild and weird Americana. Keillor wrote, “There is nobody here whom you recognize.

In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a mega-church, or a brothel, don’t own guns and are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There’s no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.”

Critics have been a bit kinder, in general, to BHL’s daughter Justine, but then again, she doesn’t pretend to a latter-day Alex de Tocqueville philosophizing about 21st century America. Justine, in her most recent book, Gaiety, doesn’t need to travel far to find a rich subject.

She writes about something she knows: motherhood. “We are no longer carefree when we have children. We are never quite serene, ” she told Le Monde. She describes her fears of a possible illness or an accident, “I have become a hypochondriac for fear of catching a disease I could pass on tot he children.” However, she adds that letting go of fears brings comfort in parenthood as in art. She described the pleasure of finishing a new book and allowing it to have an independent existence. “I write a book and finish it. I let it live a life separate from mine.”

Concerning the passing of her mother, Levy said, “Every four months, as if on cue, the children ask me, ‘where is your mother?’ I say, ‘She is dead.’The words no longer have the same pain. I am detached. If I did not write, the wound would be gaping open, festering. I would be in tears every time they would ask.”

Justine Levy’s books have been bestsellers in Europe. Nothing Serious, Rein de Grave, knocked The Da Vinci Code off the European bestseller list, and sold 517, 000 copies in France alone. Bad Girl sold 237, 000 copies in France. Levy’s first book, Rendezvous, dealt with the subject of a Parisian woman coming to terms with the divorce between her father, a famous conductor and her mother, a troubled fashion model. Julia London of Booklist wrote, “A prickly, flawed heroine deserving of love. This poignant, life-affirming book is absolutely worth it.”

Nothing Serious, which was written in the aftermath of her breakup with Raphael Enthroven, who left her for model and singer Carla Bruni, has parallels to Levy’s own situation. The protagonist’s husband runs out on her and into the arms of a “surgically enhanced” model. Louise, the heroine, finds love but struggles with the reality of her mother’s fight with cancer. Kirkus Review wrote of Nothing Serious, “A sensation … this novel from Levy manages the impossible, combining the plot of a made for TV movie with the language worthy of a feminist philosopher poet … this beautifully written novel deserves attention. Levy’s prose is luminous and the novel is a marvel of construction.”



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