Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

The Signature Dish

A few years ago, I attended a public event in New York. It was a discussion between four or five authors and philosophers, all of whom were much younger than most people in the audience.
One of the philosophers was Bernard-Henri Lévy. In France, he is referred to as BHL.
I cannot recall the topic of the discussion. It ended in a long and emotional discussion about Israel, but then again, many public events involving philosophers and authors end in emotional discussions about Israel.
What was said that evening, I’m afraid, was utterly forgettable, but what was unforgettable was the fact that every ten minutes, Mr. Lévy opened another button of his white shirt.
At the end of the evening, when the emotions about Israel took over, the people seated in the first five rows were able to see Mr. Lévy’s belly button.
According to a French friend, BHL showing his belly button is something that, in a restaurant, would be called “our signature dish.” Whatever one thinks about BHL, a philosopher who turns his belly button into his trademark has something fairly new to say.
I was pleasantly reminded of all this when last Sunday the book section of The New York Times printed a picture of Mr. Lévy on page 9. His belly button was not to be seen, but one could see a lot.
Despite the picture, Garrison Keillor’s review of Mr. Lévy’s book about America was not very flattering.
To be more precise, it was so unflattering for Mr. Lévy that I was unable to finish certain sentences without blushing.
It's not that I’m in favor of only positive reviews, rather the opposite.
But I’m sure that Mr. Keillor has never laid eyes on Mr. Lévy’s belly button.
Had the reviewer seen BHL’s tummy, he would have handled the shortcomings of the book with a little bit more empathy.
Let’s not forget that Mr. Levy’s example delivers a hopeful lesson for all of us. An author doesn’t have to show off with his talents as long as he has a decent belly button and a white shirt to go with it.