"L'affaire Botul" continues

Bernard Henri-Lévy, Balkany and Ségolène Royal.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the delight of the French intellectual class at the ridicule to which Bernard-Henri Lévy (aka "BHL") had exposed himself when he was caught quoting the "work" of a fictitious philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, in one of his two newly published books. BHL's extraordinary media profile in France (think Alain de Botton attracting Katie Price-style column acreage) has ensured that l'affaire Botul won't be expiring any time soon.

A week after BHL's working practices were first impugned by Aude Lancelin in the weekly Nouvel Observateur, Delefeil de Ton, who writes a column in the magazine every Monday, compared BHL to Patrick Balkany, mayor of the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, and an intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed in a recent book to have slept with Brigitte Bardot when he was 18 -- a boast that attracted a furious rebuttal from Bardot herself.

At the same time, Le Nouvel Observateur issued a communiqué congratulating itself -- with some justification, it must be said -- for its "independence" during the whole affair, which contrasted favourably, it claimed, with the "servility that most of the French press had displayed towards Bernard-Henri Lévy".

BHL's reaction was immediate and ferocious: in an appearance on the France Inter radio station (a video of which you can watch here), he expressed his dismay at such an august journal ("the paper of Foucault and of Sartre") engaging in a "manhunt".

And, in the latest twist in the tale, one of BHL's powerful friends, the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, has come to his aid. In a piece in Le Monde entitled "BHL, François Mitterrand, the mob and me", Royal complains about the "incredible manhunt" launched against Lévy, deplores the tone of the debate, and points out that the newspaper Libération was forced to close the comment facility on its website after it was polluted by the ravings of anti-Semites (BHL is Jewish).

She ends by quoting something Mitterrand said about the book that made Lévy's name in the late 1970s, Barbarism With a Human Face: "It is, in the image of its author," the former president wrote, "a book at once superb and naive." Royal concludes with this extraordinary paean to a man whose lack of professionalism ought to have made him persona non grata in polite circles:

The Bernard-Henri Lévy I know, whose advice I have sought, the upright and engaged man whom I admire profoundly, is, at bottom, exactly the one François Mitterrand had sensed. That surprises you? It doesn't surprise me.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear