Merci pour ce moment

Thanks for this Moment, by Valérie Trierweiler. Les Arénes, Paris 2014.

This is a bestseller in France, a revealing story of the personal lives of two prominent people – Valérie Trierweiler, a well-known journalist at Paris-Match, and François Hollande, the current President of the French Republic. Valérie Trierweiler came to international attention after the defeat of Ségolène Royal for the presidency of France in 2007. It was only then that Royal, the mother of four children with François Hollande, announced that she had asked him to move out. The cause was apparently Valérie Trierweiler, and the French press treated her pretty much as a home-wrecker. When Hollande succeeded in defeating Nicolas Sarkozy for the same office 5 years later, it was Valérie Trierweiler and not Ségolène Royal who would assume the duties of First Lady at the Elysée palace. Clearly there could be no love lost between these two women. But Hollande supported Ségolène Royal in her run for a seat in the National Assembly. Trierweiler issued a tweet of encouragement to Royal’s opponent, Olivier Falorni, which caused a hulabaloo, exposing both her hostility for the ex-lover of the President and an apparent split between Trierweiler and him. Months later, the French press revealed that Hollande was photographed after an overnight visit with an actress, Julie Gayet. Within a few days, Trierweiler was recovering from a sleeping pill overdose in a Paris hospital. Hollande put an end to their liaison and Trierweiler was no longer First Lady of France.

The book is a memoir on their relationship – his side of the story remains untold, but he has protested some of the things Trierweiler wrote in this book. I take no position on what the true story is. This review is about Trierweiler’s story.

According to her book, Valérie Trierweiler came from a modest background, a “ZUP” near Angers. (A “ZUP” in France was a protected urbanization zone, basically public housing). She got a degree and went to work as a reporter, winding up, after a failed first marriage, with Denis Trierweiler, with whom she had three sons. Working for Paris-Match, she covered the Socialist Party, and got to know many people, including François Hollande. They became friends, close enough so that Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, noticed and expressed her displeasure. Trierweiler describes a scene where she was talking with Hollande at a restaurant and Mme Royal approached their table to ask what was going on. At the time, there was no romantic relationship between the two, and Trierweiler said as much, to which Royal said “stop farting around with me.” After describing this passage, Trierweiler commented ruefully that Royal was not wrong in her inferences. It was not long afterward that Hollande began to pursue her in earnest, and she fell in love with him.

One of the most startling revelations of the book is the disdain that Hollande privately expressed for poor people – calling them “sens-dents” – toothless, apparently several times, and proud of his humor. Another was his taste for expensive items and luxurious dining. Almost as shocking is the contempt he expressed for her family – “pas jojo, la famille Massonneau” – not so pretty, your family. Another gem is when, in the Elysée, he told her that her only role was to look beautiful. In sum, Hollande comes across as a jerk.

A jerk, but evidently charming enough to her to fall in love with. She writes freely about that, without rancor. He was a great raconteur, good with constituents and crowds, and, when he wanted to be, an attentive and passionate companion for Valérie. She wound up divorcing her husband and living with Hollande for several years while he was in the political wilderness.

Hollande decided to run for the Socialist nomination for 2012, despite the general notion that the inevitable nominee would be Dominique Strauss-Kahn. However, in 2011 this rival was eliminated by the notorious sex scandal that broke out in New York City, when Strauss-Kahn was charged with rape by a chambermaid in an expensive hotel.

With Hollande’s election to the Presidency, his relationship with Trierweiler cooled. He was busy and did not want her involved in his political affairs except in a very limited capacity as First Lady. He did not consult her or notify her in advance of decisions, even about things that she had been asked to be involved in. And then he struck up a relationship with the actress Julie Gayet, which lasted a year, producing rumors that he denied to Trierweiler, until the French online magazine Closer published a photograph of him in a motorscooter helmet in the wee hours of the morning in front of Gayet’s apartment building.

This book is about personal pain, and Trierweiler is unsparing about her own behavior as well as Hollande’s. An example is her description of deliberately forcing Ségolène Royal to shake hands with her in public. The book is well written, as would be expected from a professional reporter with her credentials. (Nonetheless there have been suggestions in the press that she had a ghost-writer, or that her editor Laurent Beccaria insisted on cutting some potentially libelous statements about Ségolène Royal, charges that Beccaria has denied in print). The picture is of people in high positions in society behaving badly, trivially, inflicting and suffering emotional damage. I came away feeling sympathy for Trierweiler, but note that others have had the opposite reaction, with sympathy for Hollande! From her point of view, though, she had a decent job and home, a husband and three young children, and in response to Hollande’s advances, gave all that up to live with him long before he had a visible chance of becoming President. His success, which many thought was her motivation for attaching herself to him, was to her the cause of their breakup.

The final revelation, really surprising, is that earlier this year, after the rupture, he began sending her text messages asking her to come back. Now clearly this is something for which she would be able to produce evidence in case she needs to. The ending of the book provides its title:

“The time has come to close this narrative, written with my tears, my insomnias, and my memories, some of which still burn me. Thanks for this moment, thanks for that crazy love, thanks for the trip to the Ëlysée. Thanks also for the chasm into which you have dropped me. You taught me a lot about yourself, others, and myself. From now on I can move and strive, without fear of the regard of others, without begging for yours. I want to live, to write other pages of this strange book, this singular voyage that is the life of a woman. This will be without you. I was neither married, nor protected. I can only have been loved as much as I have loved.”

The last sentence poses an eternal problem of couples: the balance of affection. She seems to say that she could not have expected more love than she was willing to give. The rest of the book certainly makes the case that during the time approaching the rupture of their relationship she got less.

In the end, with Hollande once again pursuing her with text messages, she is burned and unwilling to go back, convinced that his character will never change, that life with him would be a return to lies, humiliation and eventual abandonment.

She insists that her story is true – that she was too much a victim of lies to resort to them in turn. And if so, it is certainly understandable why she feels the way she does about Hollande.

Proust et Le Miroir des Eaux

Proust et Le Miroir des Eaux

Par Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire


Proust et le Miroir des Eaux (DeParis 2006) montre clairement le rôle important de l’eau dans le roman de Proust, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. L’évidence est massive, tirée de tous les parties de l’œuvre, surtout de Du Coté de Chez Swann où Proust évoque la signification symbolique de la rivière Yvonne à Combray (voir le Loir à Illiers). Mais aussi c’est tirée d’ Àl’Ombre des Jeune Filles en Fleurs ou l’immense force de la mer, et sa mutabilité, sont décrits à beaucoup de reprises. Et dans Sodome et Gomorrhe encore, avec la description de Venise. Armelle Bargullet-Hauteloire reussit à me convaincre: l’eau prend un grand rôle métaphorique dans le roman.

Le récit, court bien sûr mais pas superficiel, en approfondant les liens entre l’eau et la pensée de Proust, range sur beaucoup de thèmes proustiennes, au-delà de l’eau, et mon commentaire concerne un détail de son œuvre, qui n’a pas un grand effet sur son argument sur l’eau.

Un des thèmes proustiennes qu’elle discute est l’inversion sexuelle. Pourquoi Proust parlait-il si franchement sur l’inversion sexuelle dans la Recherche? Selon elle, ça revient de son honte d’être homosexuel lui-même, surtout à cause de son intense amour pour sa mère. Je n’ai pas une raison claire d’en douter, mais j’ai cru avant que Proust a caché son homosexualité, où à moins il a montré son héros comme un homme qui aime les femmes et surtout un homme qui a une horreur de lesbianisme, non parce qu’il avait honte d’être homosexuel, mais par prudence vis-à-vis ces lecteurs. Mon idée vient du fait que j’ai lu quelque part qu’il a averti un éditeur sur le caractère de Charlus. Charlus quand même est décrit avec tendresse, même avec indulgence, par exemple dans la scène fameuse dans la rue devant le magasin de Jupien, quand le jeune héros reconnait finalement le caractère féminin de Charlus. Certes, plus tard Charlus est montré dans les actes masochistes. Mais là quand même sans condamnation de la part du héros, qui se dit plusieurs fois qu’il ne condamne personne. C’est comme si il a voulu dévoiler le fait que l’inverti est humain aussi, mais qu’il n’osait pas admettre publiquement qu’il en soit. Aujourd’hui, les gais en général dans notre culture ne sont pas honteux, ce qui montre que le fait d’être gai n’est pas une faute de caractère morale, même si la majorité des hommes et des femmes s’aiment les uns les autres. Dans la société de la France du 19eme, c’était sans doute différent. Certes, les gais étaient forcés de rester cachés, « dans le placard » comme on dit. La morale chrétienne était puissante en France dans le 19eme et restait encore en Amérique jusqu’à nos jours. Alors je dois admettre que sans doute Proust et les gais chrétiens du 19eme ont souffert d’un sens d’immoralité en découvrant leur identité sexuelle. Le fait que Proust les décrit comme membres d’une race à part donne force à cet argument. Là les pensées ont changé depuis le temps de Proust. (J’ajoute que Proust a montré son héros comme un espion pour expliquer pourquoi il ait connaissance des mœurs sexuelles de Charlus et du Prince de Guermantes. C’est évidemment parce qu’il n’osait pas publier que cette connaissance soit personnelle. Ironiquement il a préféré nuire le caractère de son héros plutôt de se compromettre en écrit).

Voilà comme Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire a écrit un livre plein de raison et de beauté. Elle m’a persuadé avec beaucoup d’évidence, dans un style littéraire, proustien.

The Guardian State

This column appeared in the Albany Times Union May 31 2014.


David Brooks in his column (“State of Guardian states,” May 21) argues democracy is in decline worldwide, citing the increased number of democratic governments that are rated as functioning poorly. He plainly thinks our own country is doing badly, with a “pathetic” 26 percent of voters believing in the government’s ability to do the right thing.

As for a solution, he thinks we should borrow a page from China or Singapore. How would that work out? There would be a lot of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions that would enable us to react to changing times more rapidly.

Here we have a conservative columnist decrying gridlock. The irony is truly astonishing. How many crises have we been through brought on by House Speaker John Boehner and the tea party Republicans who have been pulling him around by the nose hairs, threatening default on our debt, and then forcing a partial government shutdown to try to force right-wing policies on the Obama administration?

In a democracy, and in contrast to China, it is possible to vote out those responsible for bad government. Here’s hoping it happens soon.

Boehner Wrong Again, This Time on Foreign Policy

John Boehner writes on CNN that in Afghanistan we need to avoid the mistakes we made in Iraq. This was an intriguing statement. I thought we made all the mistakes in Afghanistan that we made in Iraq already! What is the deal? Well, Boehner thinks that we got out of Iraq “too soon” and that the Obama administration needs to talk less about getting out of Afghanistan and more about accomplishing our mission there. Again, my cognitive dissonance detector went off. Isn’t Osama Bin Laden dead after all?

Everything is explained when you realize that despite all his talk about bipartisanship on Afghanistan, Boehner is seeking to reclaim the old Republican position of being the reliable party on foreign affairs. A tough sell considering the record of misery brought on by Bush’s adventurism.

Saddam and Bin Laden are dead. I say, finally, mission accomplished. The USA has more important things to do than try to pacify these two troubled countries.

Doing the Brahms Requiem

On May 3 2014 Sharon and I formed part of the chorus of Albany Pro Musica to perform Ein Deutsches Requiem, by Brahms, under the direction of the opera director Sara Jobin, with John Cheek and Maureen O’Flynn and the Pro Musica Orchestra, the flexible ensemble organized by Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz. Ms. Jobin is not the regular conductor of Albany Pro Musica, but stepped in for this concert after the founding director, David Griggs-Janower, died in August. Rehearsals started in September, and were interspersed with rehearsals for other concerts, including the Dvorak Stabat Mater only a month ago.

During her rehearsals, Sara concentrated on diction and text, but also worked hard on pitch and rhythm with the expanded chorus. Many of the singers had performed this piece a number of years ago, but many were new and had little experience singing in German. We worked on prononciation up to just before walking on stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sara insisted that everybody also learn the meaning of the words, believing that this was an important key to conveying the emotional import of the text. Psychologically this makes sense, because a lot of vocal and facial expressions can be influenced unconsciously by the meaning of the text; it might be possible to conjure these up like an actor, but it is probably easier to depend on a more instinctive mechanism. Every conductor has an approach, but all the good ones I have worked with have insisted on singing with feeling. That is a large part of what choral music is all about.

A slender woman, Sara nevertheless is a commanding presence on the podium, moving at times more like a dancer. Most conductors harangue the singers to watch them, but she did not have to do this. I found it fun to watch her, and in the end I felt better prepared than usual.

The text of this well-known piece is not a standard Catholic requiem, but a selection of religious passages that are somber and philosophical, summarized best by the texts of the opening and last movements, remarking the happiness of those who have suffered but pass on in the faith. The final movement, “Seilig sind die Töten” is a serene evocation of this hopeful feeling. The melodies are beautiful and the dynamic shifts in the piece are impressive.

One never knows about the size of the audience in advance, but the house was reasonably full – about 700. After a couple dozen hours’ worth of rehearsal, and perhaps an equal number of hours of practice at home, the singers, the orchestra and conductor, and the officers and staff members of the collaborating organizations came together to produce about an an hour and five minutes of complex and beautiful music, a great classic. It was a satisfying experience.

I joke around with fellow choristers after concerts: “Another piece of ephemera down the tubes!” Maybe I should not. To me the enjoyment of being part of the performance lasts much longer than that of the audience member, but the regret of having to stop working on a piece calls for a sort of distancing. I remind myself that there will be other pieces to sing, and start looking forward to the next thing. I will file this one in my memory as one of the most rewarding ever.

An independent review of the concert appeared today in the Albany Times Union.

Cliven and Friends

Kathleen Parker in her column in the Washington Post (April 27 2014) seeks to put some distance between the Republican Party and Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodging rancher who recently suggested in public that black people would be better off as slaves. She mentions a whole bunch of Republicans who have done the same as her, including Rand Paul, although, as Maureen Dowd said in her column in the Times, it took him more than a day to get around to it.

It is a real problem for the Republicans, because they are without doubt the largest party of racism in America. I will leave out the fringe groups, not because they don’t matter, but because I don’t want them to get more internet hits. And I will not go into the ancient history in which all parties were racist.

Now Kathleen Parker is right when she says that not all Republicans are racist. But the truth is that the Republicans have played the race card ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson. That was what Richard Nixon’s Law and Order campaign was really all about. (Nixon was of course both racist and anti-semitic). Fast forward to the ruthless and racist attack on Michael Dukakis when he was running against GHW Bush for President. And of course today we have the compounding of racist religious hatred that motivates the drooling, livid right wing attack on Barack Obama, which overflows into so-called respectable Republican rhetoric about how foreign his policies are.

Being the only major party where racism has any kind of home is not the only difficulty the Republicans face. They are also the party of ignorance. It is among their candidates that you will scarcely find a single one that admits to the scientific validity of evolution or the human responsibility for global warming. It is the Republicans who are signing up to block any studies on gun violence funded by the government.

But let us get back to Mr. Bundy. A self-styled libertarian, living in the heart of America, protected from any real danger by the immense power of the United States government, he thinks it is OK to freeload off public land and threaten government officials with firearms. Where’s the reciprocity? And then, supposedly valuing his own liberty, he thinks that black people would be content with slavery? It could be that he thinks they are not human. Or maybe he is just a hypocrite; just a suggestion.

Hitch 22

I thought Christopher Hitchens was on the wrong side of the aisle. For example, he was scathing in his opinions about Bill Clinton, during the sex scandal over Monica Lewinsky. Not that I approved of Clinton’s dalliance, but still I thought it was a grotesque over-reach by the Republicans to impeach him, and I felt that Hitchens was helping the wrong people. In his memoir Hitch 22 (Twelve, New York, 2010) he says almost nothing about his stance on that, but he repeats many of his other criticisms of the former President. Nevertheless he approved Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Bosnian war.

Hitch 22 goes back to Hitchens’ school days and rolls forward through a journalistic career that took Hitchens very far afield, and brought him into contact with some of the brightest lights in literature and politics of the last half century. He goes into depth about these encounters, keeping careful score of what was said by whom and who turned out to be right or wrong. Some of these accounts are droll, such as the time when a famous female politician swatted him on his backside in public, others sad, but all interesting. The book shows, step-by-step, how Hitchens went from being an active socialist to a neocon critic, defender of Bush I and II for intervening in Iraq, while criticizing their incompetence – Bush I for failing to take out Saddam, and Bush II for botching the occupation of that country.

In a number of places he refers to his well-known atheism, but he also writes of having learned as an adult that his mother was Jewish, and how he did some research on the origins of that side of his family. His criticism of what he called Islamo-fascism preceded 9/11 and was based on his observations as a journalist covering events in the Middle East, especially Iraq. He was active in promoting the idea that Iraq would have to be invaded, long before 2003.

A quick wit on television, Hitchens had what his friends called a Rolls-Royce mind. His books on religion and Thomas Jefferson showed his commanding intelligence and that is on full display in Hitch 22 as well. The depth and seriousness of the reading he did as a boy and as a student are impressive, and the content very different from what Americans are given to understand as the accepted canon. One might think that language differences were the main reason for variation in education in different countries, but if Hitchens is any example, the real reason is that people in different countries give different books to their children.

Hitchens’ principles were libertarian to a large extent, and his reactions to infringements were visceral and sharp. This sent him down a surprising path, given his early socialist leanings.



Krauthammer on Free Speech…

Friday Charles Krauthammer came out with a column criticizing the left for its alleged penchant for suppressing free speech. Well, I guess we cannot expect him to criticize the right for the same thing. Try teaching evolution in Saudi Arabia, for example – or some places in the US for that matter. What Charles seeks to obfuscate is that the reason for suppressing free speech is usually to retain power, and the sinners can be either on the right or the left. Now I hold no brief for loonies on my side of the political spectrum. But I think we do not let them dictate our policies. Which is more than one can say for, um, John Boehner!

Update on this: a terrific letter to the editor appears in the April 18 edition of the Albany Times Union, by Karl Felsen of Guilderland New York:

Letter: The pot calls the kettle totalitarian

Charles Krauthammer is right that the greatest threat to progressivism is its growing intolerance for civil discourse and diversity of opinions. But this trend has been metastasizing for some time.
When Democrats were soundly defeated by the scorched earth tactics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, instead of finding their own way to victory, they adopted the Rovian way. When viciously pilloried by the rabid ranting of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, instead of turning the other cheek, they sought champions who could mindlessly scream as loud.
And when it comes to silencing dissent, the right, although still using boycotts, petitions, Darrell Issa hearings, talk radio, Fox News, etc., has pioneered a much more efficient technique.
Voter suppression is the most effective silencing tool of the modern age. No one can say with a straight face that these new laws are meant to deal with voter fraud. As one Pennsylvania Republican official unwittingly admitted on camera, these laws are intended to keep people who don’t look like, or agree with, me from exercising their right to vote. I hope the progressives never abandon democratic principles so completely, as to follow the right in suppressing the right to vote. But as Krauthammer’s column points out, modern progressives are willing to imitate and adopt the undemocratic, uncivil tactics of the right without a glimmer of recognizing the hypocrisy and moral decline they are engaging in.
I know Krauthammer was as shocked as Captain Renault in Casablanca at the intolerance displayed recently by progressives, but isn’t his column just a good example of the pot calling the kettle totalitarian? Or might it not have been better slugged, “Embrace conservatism or just don’t vote.”
Karl Felsen

In Search of Lost Genomes

I was in search of a book for my wife in the science section of Barnes and Noble tucked way in the back, opposite children’s books, and along the way picked up a copy of Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man, subtitled In Search of Lost Genomes (Basic Books, 2014). It is a compelling read, although too long to absorb in a single sitting! As a young man Paabo began studying Egyptology, but found it too static. He went on to molecular biology, but did not drop his interest in ancient humans. He got the idea of looking for DNA in mummies, and from there pursued an increasingly successful career in studying ancient genomes, both of mammals and humans. In this book he describes the intense effort over a four-year period to decipher the genetic material of Neanderthals. Unlike many popular books on science, this one leads the reader into the intricacies of analysis, describing in detail the painstaking process of going over and over the ground, searching for errors in his team’s procedures, interacting with other groups, trying out different techniques, discarding the failed ones along the way, and finally getting the key methods and the sought after information. It is a remarkable story. The principal result is that when comparing the Neanderthal genome to those of several other modern humans and, for reference, the chimpanzee, Paabo’s team discovered that a significant percentage of the DNA of Europeans and Asians derives from Neanderthals. But none is detected in Africans. This answers an important question in paleontology that scientists have debated fruitlessly on anatomical grounds: whether Neanderthals mixed with modern humans. The simplest explanation is that modern humans migrating out of Africa encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East and mixed with them before spreading to Asia and Europe. The Neanderthal genome is now publicly available for anyone to reference, and people are already doing that in diverse projects. To quote a blurb from Ed Wilson on the jacket: “..if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”

Proust in Search of Redemption

I have been re-reading “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” recently, and during this time I found on the internet a couple of interesting pieces by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire, a French poet and essayist. After leaving some comments on her blog I was very pleased that she took the trouble to write back to me. She wrote a book “Proust- ou la recherché de la redemption” which I ordered through Amazon and devoured in a single afternoon, as I found it impossible to put it down. The book has two parts – one devoted to Proust himself, and the second focused on the core of Proust’s message in the Recherche, which she thinks is fundamentally religious, something that had not occurred to me before. As she notes, certainly Proust writes very often about churches, but his hero and his characters do not talk much about religion. Instead Proust pursues the goal of immortality by resurrecting the past, both by overt recollection of the past, and by celebrating the famous involuntary memories (déjà vu), touched off by sounds or tastes, sometimes by sights, which evoke with amazing completeness specific moments of the past. She notes that many turn away from Proust, unwilling to spend time on what they feel is an excessively detailed recitation of the inner life of the hero, a sensitive and sickly person, a close observer of others, who feels a vocation for writing but does little to pursue it, because he cannot think of a subject. In the last chapter of the Recherche, Proust apparently speaks through his hero, and describes how he came to realize what he had to write about – namely his own internal life, with all the complex relationships that connected it to the worlds of art, literature, and even science, as well as the people he knew. This will bring back the past in a real way for him, allowing him to dwell in multiple times, and allow him to speak to future generations, the closest we can get to eternity in the real world. It is this sentiment, so powerful that it led Proust to live his final years as an ascetic, that Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire finds religious.

This reminded me of the poem by Horace (3.30)

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

reglalique situ pyramidum altius…

Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei

vitabit Libitinam…

« I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me will evade Libitina (Goddess of Death)… ».

I can add to this example the Shakers, the religious sect that thrived in the northeastern United States from the late 18th to the early 19th century, who thought that their celibate way of life, organized around common labor and housing, was a paradise on earth.

Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire writes at the end of her book on Proust: “Listen to him.” I have to agree with this; this is an immense and influential work,very worthwhile to read, and more than once. For the artist, and as Proust conceded, for the savant, work is a kind of salvation from obscurity. We want our lives to have meaning in the real world, and those who can create something for future generations to use or treasure are more likely to succeed in this than most.

Blog at
The Esquire Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.