The Father, the Son and Carla Bruni: New Autobiography Stuns the French

It was the affair that shocked Saint-Germain-des-Pres: French philosopher Raphael Enthoven left his wife, Justine Levy, for supermodel Carla Bruni – who was his father's lover at the time. His new 'autobiographical novel' only made things worse

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Carla Bruni with Raphael Enthoven in Paris, March 20, 2003.
Carla Bruni with Raphael Enthoven in Paris, March 20, 2003.Credit: Martin Bureau/AFP
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

With calculated timing, before the French “return to the routine” and in order to beat potential candidates for the October literary prizes, philosopher Raphael Enthoven’s book “Le Temps Gagne” (“The Time Gained”) was recently released in France.

The autobiographical novel, as the author calls it, is undoubtedly endowed with literary qualities and learned citations – beginning with its name, a nod to Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” But the tremendous interest in the book stems from a juicy affair that fills only about 30 of its 523 pages, and shocked Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the neighborhood where Enthoven was born and lives – dubbed the bastion of the “caviar left” by intellectuals, artists and publishers who live there and determine the bon ton for the satiated and self-aware left – to the core.

In her book, Justine Levy called Carla Bruni 'a terminator' who 'chose her face with her plastic surgeon, from a catalogue'

The affair under discussion took place about 20 years ago. Enthoven was married at the time to Justine Levy, the daughter of French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who was incidentally also the closest friend of his father, publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven. Some even sarcastically remarked at the time that the marriage of the children was in effect the marriage of the two fathers.

It was during the millennium celebration in the magnificent home of Enthoven’s father-in-law in Marrakesh, Morocco, that Enthoven junior met 1990s supermodel and singer Carla Bruni – at the time his father’s lover. Shortly after the encounter Raphael left Justine and moved in with Bruni. The neighborhood was all abuzz. But shortly after the two brought their son into the world, Bruni left Enthoven junior, married Nicolas Sarkozy and became the first lady of France.

Raphael Enthoven in Paris. 'A writer must be without fear or morals.'Credit: Kanh Renaud

In 2004 Justine Levy published a bitter, vengeful and funny book, “Nothing Serious,” in which she told her version of the desertion. In it, she called Bruni “a terminator” who “chose her face with her plastic surgeon, from a catalogue.”

“That was to be expected,” says Enthoven, 45, in an email interview when asked whether he was disappointed that the critics chose to focus on the voyeuristic and gossipy aspect of the book. “I didn’t imagine that such a book would be read as a novel. After all, the characters are familiar faces. I focused on living people, I embedded them in my book as I understand them, in a certain style, and I turned them into stuffed animals. It’s possible that the story I tell is too harsh, but it’s fair, and the people can react and defend themselves, and they’re definitely doing so.”

No one is to blame

It would be unfair to treat the book as the defendant’s version of the Justine vs. Carla affair. This is a wise and learned book, biting and not lacking in self-deprecating humor, with which Enthoven tells the story of his childhood, a story shared by many members of the second generation of the May 1968 revolutionaries. In the book’s first sentence Enthoven writes: “No, I don’t think I was a battered child. Because if I was one, what would be left for the real victims?”

Nicolas Sarkozy (R) with former supermodel Carla Bruni before they were married during a visit to the Giza pyramids in Cairo, December 30, 2007.Credit: Reuters

His father Jean-Paul and his mother, journalist Catherine David, divorced when he was only 4 years old. Raphael went back and forth between their two homes, which he calls the tyrannical “Soviet Union” and the liberal “United States,” in the spirit of the years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall. The “Soviet Union” was the home of his mother, who married a violent psychoanalyst (and follower of Jacques Lacan) who physically and emotionally abused Raphael while his amused mother giggled with “a duck’s laugh.”

He felt protected only in the “United States,” in the home of his dreamy and romantic father, who frequently switched girlfriends but treated him with warmth and pride. When his father found out about the psychoanalyst’s violence toward his son, he wrote him an angry letter of protest that he never sent.

Jean-Paul EnthovenCredit: AFP

Today Raphael Enthoven is a famous media personality in France. For the past 12 years he has moderated the TV program “Philosophy.” He is handsome, something of a dandy who is well aware of his appearance. In the book he describes the moment he became aware of his good looks, when he saw “his reflection on a blue background of Lake Annecy” in the window of the train that took him to “snow class” in the Alps. “Today my appearance has sharpened and changed,” he says modestly. He is now single and a father to four sons from different women.

What does being a philosopher actually mean?

“I’m a teacher of philosophy and deal with introducing dialectics into the public discourse, discussing current phenomena and their reflection in philosophical texts, and defending the principle and conditions of freedom. My television show discusses current events and presents a balanced discussion between opposing opinions. In effect, I’m interested in arousing collective thinking, opposing opinions – a fair discussion brings the sides closer.”

'It’s not a matter of ‘settling accounts’ and I’m not taking revenge, I’m hitting back at those who have beaten me. It’s not the same thing'

He started writing “Le Temps Gagne” in January 2019 while working on an essay on the commonalities between Albert Camus’ book “The Rebel” and the “yellow vests” protests that erupted in France in November 2018 on the backdrop of the high cost of living and President Emanuel Macron’s decision to raise fuel prices (which was later suspended).

The cover of "Le Temps Gagne," an autobiographical novel by Raphael Enthoven.Credit: Les Editions de l'Observatoire

The subject of rebellion led to him write the first 30 pages, which dealt with his personal rebellion during his childhood, when he fled from the violence of the psychoanalyst. He showed them to a publisher who encouraged him to continue writing the “autobiographical novel.”

“I call the book a ‘novel’ because all memory undergoes processing, transformation that is the product of imagination,” he explains. “The moment the dam burst, I wrote based on my memory while respecting the feelings that arose while I was writing. This also explains the book’s title, ‘The Time Gained.’ This is process I use to preserve a memory from the past in the present, to give it meaning without going back in time.”

What’s the connection between rebellion according to Camus, the “yellow vests” protests and your autobiographical book?

“Camus saw rebellion as a concept that includes love. A rebellion without a constructive plan is doomed to failure. What the yellow vests and Camus share is hatred of a common enemy, but the vests rebellion movement crashed because it didn’t include an attempt to build something new. They were incapable of fighting in favor of something, only against something. My book describes the rebellion of the child against his stepfather who makes his life miserable.

Justine LevyCredit: AFP

In her book, Justine Levy describes her former partner as an incorrigible narcissist, an egoist focused on himself and his appearance. He feels like he’s in perpetual competition with her father and constantly asks her, “What did you father do at my age?” She explains her unexpected pregnancy by the fact that Enthoven always refused to use a condom, claiming that he was sterile (in his own book he admits that he used this tactic with his other lovers, too).

Levy writes that he encouraged her to get an abortion with the explanation that they were “too young to be parents.” Her father “took care of the matter,” “as he always took care of everything, quickly.” The wealthy and well-connected philosopher immediately found a gynecologist who was willing to perform an abortion in the fifth month, and their child never came to be.

Despite your intention to “preserve a memory from the past in the present,” in the book you return to events that took place in the past, to the protagonists Faustine (Justine), Eli (Bernard-Henri Levy) and Rita Frances (Levy’s third wife, Arielle Dombasle). Did you go back there to settle accounts? As an act of revenge?

“It’s not a matter of ‘settling accounts’ and I’m not taking revenge, I’m hitting back at those who have beaten me. It’s not the same thing. Since the publication of Justine’s book I come across strangers I don’t know waving her book around and giving me accusatory looks, so sometimes I get a little angry and want to react. If I wanted to kill, I would have done it differently. I wouldn’t have devoted so much time to describing a smile, the way Rita enters the swimming pool, or the way someone sits at his desk [here he refers to Bernard-Henri Levy, who was once his mentor, and whom he now finds pathetic]. My book is not an atomic bomb, it’s a collection of gestures, situations, reflexes and plays on words that would disappear without my testimony.

Raphael paints his father as a genuine intellectual, very knowledgeable but not particularly creative, who worships rich people and lives alongside them but not with them

“In the case of Faustine, I described the events as I lived them, as Justine did in her book. She wrote that I forced her to have an abortion. She also claims that had she given birth to the child, she would have called him Aurelien, the name I gave to the son I had with a different woman. Whatever, why not? Everyone writes what they want, and so do I.”

Enthoven is referring to a passage that infuriated those involved as well as ordinary readers. This passage, which deviates from the style of the book, is scathing and totally unnecessary. In it Enthoven doesn’t spare tasteless details from Faustine’s personal life. He defines it as an “Albert Cohen moment” – an allusion to Cohen’s masterpiece, “Belle du Seigneur,” in which the idyllic lovers have separate and distant bathrooms to avoid hearing each others’ “bodily noises.” This passage does not add or subtract anything from the character of his ex-wife, as is true of her “horsey smile” or “her cheeks as round as balls.”

In his defense, he now says, “After reading the books of Philip Roth, James Joyce, Milan Kundera and Albert Cohen, I saw that they use the same examples. True, I wrote about shit and there’s nothing vengeful about that. It’s no more offensive that revealing the intimacy of our shared life, or the nasty claim that I pushed her into having an abortion. A writer must be without fear or morals. He goes where his heart dictates and if his freedom is taken from him, it’s all over.”

In the shade of the bougainvilleas

Between quotes from Spinoza to Leibnitz, Enthoven includes very amusing anecdotes: how Nicolas Sarkozy gifted “a bell for covering cheese” for his and Justine’s wedding (“How many people in the world can claim that Sarkozy gave them a bell to cover cheese?”) or about the dramatic weekend in Marrakesh in the “palace” of Bernard-Henri Levy: While those who had the privilege of receiving an invitation to the glittering residence crowd around a heated pool in the shade of the bougainvilleas and the irises, the servants offer flutes of Champagne and scented towels, the head of the house observes the events from the upper balcony, descends with royal pomp to the audience, talks about hunger in Sudan, freedom of the press, jumps into the pool and ostentatiously swims several laps with a butterfly stroke.

Bernard-Henri Lévy during the solidarity parade in Paris in honor of Mireille Knoll, following the brutal murder of the Holocaust survivor in March by a Muslim youth.Credit: Yann Castanier / Hans Lucas / AF

Rita Frances (Arielle Dombasle), a 66-year-old beauty with the mannerisms of a spoiled little girl, spends 10 minutes on the ridiculous ritual in which she gets up from her armchair with feline movements, takes three ballerina steps toward the pool while tossing alluring glances over her shoulder, tests the water temperature with her big toe without bending her back, and enters the pool vertically, without splashing a single drop.

As opposed to all the others, Raphael’s father emerges from the book without any deep scratches. He is portrayed as a warm, embracing man who is imaginative to the point of being detached from reality. Raphael paints his father as a genuine intellectual, very knowledgeable but not particularly creative, who worships rich people and lives alongside them but not with them.

Still, Enthoven senior was deeply hurt by the book. In an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro, he said, “I’m not in favor of ‘smearing’ people’s private lives. Why is it necessary to hurt me and those close to me through mudslinging? [Raphael] removed, for his enjoyment, the masks that we all need during our lives.” In a television interview on France’s Channel 5, Jean-Paul Enthoven said that he feels like he’s in mourning, as do several other people hurt by his son, and has therefore decided to sever ties with Raphael and informed him of this by text message.

Of all the characters in the book, the most impressive one is your father, a person who arouses affection. How do you feel about the severance of ties he announced in the media?

“As I understand it, this book is the longest love letter ever written by a son to his father. But it’s a letter to the real father, and not the father as he imagines himself. My father doesn’t know how to be loved as he is, that’s his problem and not mine. In his reaction he is behaving exactly like the character in the story: He is inflating the tragedy of revealing the details and presenting it as an attempt to sabotage his newly published book, shouting to the press: ‘Look how I’m suffering.’ What can I do?”

You emphasize the difference between the Sephardi side of your family and the Ashkenazi side, which of course is identified with the bad guys.

“You’re wrong. I’m not talking about ‘all the Ashkenazim’: Gerard Rambert, who was my philosophy teacher, was Ashkenazi – a happy man. In any case, I’m not familiar with happiness without pessimism. In my case, Algeria, couscous, barefoot soccer – these are all connected to my father and to the happiness of living with him. Poland and the Danube are connected to my stepfather and his awful methods of education. I feel more Sephardi than Ashkenazi and that made it easier for me as a child because I didn’t have to identify with the weight of the Ashkenazi tragedy. Only as an adult did I manage to see both aspects as a single entity.”

Did the book release you from painful memories of a difficult childhood, unsuccessful marriages and people who disappointed you?

“I have no painful memories, and no resentment. Every memory, as pleasant or terrible as it is, is a raw ingredient. My memory is a gold mine in which the most select particles are not the pleasant ones but those that ‘speak’ more.”

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