Comebacks can be tough even when you are famous enough to be known only by your initials. So it has been this week in Paris, where France's best-known contemporary philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy or BHL, as he is universally known has been trying to explain how he was hoodwinked by a fictional character he had taken for a great thinker.
Confused? So was the journalist who unearthed the blunder on page 122 of Lévy's slim new treatise called On War in Philosophy. There, Lévy quotes the fine insights of a French writer named Jean-Baptiste Botul on the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. But Botul, it turns out, is not a real person he's a fictional character created five years ago by Frédéric Pagès, a journalist at the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. Using Botul as a pseudonym, Pagès published a verbose book on Kant in 1999, which was intended to be a playful dig at French intellectuals. "Everyone knew it was a joke," says Pierre Assouline, author of The Republic of Books, a blog published by France's biggest daily, Le Monde. "All BHL had to do was to Google Botul, and he would have known in 10 minutes it was a fake." (Botul even has his own French Wikipedia page, which describes him as fictitious.)
Until the error was revealed Monday, Feb. 8, by the journalist Aude Lancelin in the French weekly Nouvel Observateur, the media in France were buzzing with praise for Lévy's new book as they did for his previous works, including Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, an investigative book about the killing of the American journalist, and American Vertigo, a meditative tome about his journey across the U.S. Lévy had also been doing the promotion rounds, appearing on major talk shows to discuss his new book and posing for photographs in French magazines, wearing his trademark white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his bronzed, slim physique.
Lévy is at least as well known for his celebrity as for his writing. He is a fixture in magazines, sometimes being photographed at his large Left Bank apartment with his wife, the French actress Arielle Dombasle, or by the pool at the couple's mansion in Marrakech, which was once owned by John-Paul Getty. Given his jet-setting lifestyle and dashing appearance, some French journalists have found the story of his literary error too titillating to ignore and their coverage has been overwhelmingly unforgiving. Lancelin, who first spotted Lévy's mistake, described it as a "nuclear gaffe" that would discredit his other work, while Assouline called him "ridiculous."
For his part, the philosopher has tried to brush off the incident with rare self-deprecating humor. In a TV interview, he confessed that he had found the spoof book on Kant "astonishing" and the fictitious Botul "a very good philosopher." And on his website, titled The Rules of the Game, which is owned by his book publisher, Grasset, he admitted that he had been completely duped by Botul. "He has tried to be smart and funny," says Assouline. "It's all nonsense. He was clearly annoyed." Meanwhile, Grasset has refused requests from journalists to explain how the error crept into the book.
Despite the incident, most people believe Lévy's reputation will remain intact and that a professional comeback is not impossible. "There is a network of powerful friends who defend him, who say it is not a big deal," says Lancelin. Indeed, the Libération newspaper, for which Lévy is an editorial consultant, has already backed off the story. "It often happens, even in rigorous universities, that one is duped," a journalist for the paper wrote this week. "In the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, the affair has risen to a real fracas." But for critics like Lancelin, Lévy shouldn't be able to get off that easy. "In fact, it was an inexplicable oversight," he says.