- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

A YEAR WITH NICOLAS SARKOZY

By Yasmina Reza

Alfred A. Knopf, $23, 188 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

Forty years ago, the political advertising team of the Nixon presidential campaign allowed a young writer named Joe McGinniss to sit in on staff meetings and watch televison ads being made. Mr. McGinniss, who had been a political columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, had the face of a choir boy and the instincts of a journalistic hit man. After the campaign, he wrote “The Selling of the President 1968,” based on his observations. The book, a critical and financial success, showed in grisly and often embarrassing detail how political images are crafted out of newts’ eyes and bats’ wings, in arcane rituals at midnight crossroads.

I was reminded of Mr. McGinniss as I read “Dawn, Dusk or Night.” I wondered if President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has had second thoughts about his decision to allow Yasmina Reza, internationally renowned playwright and novelist, to be with him on the campaign trail for a year.

Ms. Reza’s access to Mr. Sarkozy, at his insistence, was practically unimpeded. She saw and heard things campaign aides would prefer to be secret forever, and she reports Mr. Sarkozy’s often salty language word-for-word. Her book is made up of brief, impressionistic glimpses of Mr. Sarkozy, his assistants, his admirers and his hangers-on, as they criss-cross France, trying to peddle an image of Mr. Sarkozy as a proponent of change.

Yet this is not “The Selling of Sarkozy 2007.” Ms. Reza is not interested primarily in exposing the chicanery and hypocrisies, large and small, of politics, although she clearly relishes writing about them. As a playwright interested chiefly in character, she tries to portray the existential (what else, in France?) reality of a political figure who has admirable qualities, but is ready, indeed eager, to do the thousand-and-one lunatic things one must do in order to win a national election in a democracy.

Mr. Sarkozy, as portrayed by Ms. Reza, is vain, arrogant, says things he does not believe, believes things he dares not say, loses his temper when he does not get what he wants, and, in general, is all too comfortable (not to mention gifted) telling voters what they want to hear. None of this should come as a surprise, except perhaps to a French intellectual, because, after all, Mr. Sarkozy was a candidate seeking to win an election, and a candidate’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, right? Mais oui! This primal fact of politics often seems to come as a shock, not to mention a disappointment, to Ms. Reza.

Yet I believe Mr. Sarkozy, in his heart of hearts, welcomes this book, because “Dawn, Dusk or Night,” while it is often indiscreet, is never sensational. The author is skeptical about politics and about Mr. Sarkozy, but she is not cynical. In many ways, the book tells us more about the exquisitely refined sensibilities and infinitely subtle thought-processes of the author than it does about the moral character of her subject.

For the first 50 or so pages the author’s tone, a combination of irritating detachment and too-easy irony, bothered me. But once I got into the rhythms of her often elliptical, aphoristic, sometimes impenetrable style (Where are the quotation marks? Is she speaking, or is it Mr. Sarkozy?), I found myself increasingly appreciative of her approach. She has a shrewd, assured authorial voice, compelling in its honesty. But I must admit there are mysteries in this book whose meaning is not granted to mere Americans. What, for example, are we to make of Ms. Reza’s fascination with Mr. Sarkozy’s legs? Page after page we find:

” … he limped … [his] legs restless, opening and closing in perpetual motion … left leg on the table, right leg moving … *ubtle movements of his legs’ discreet undulation … legs crossed … [he] stares at his feet … legs slightly apart … the distinctive leg movements (mild to moderate) … appearing through the door frame with a light limp …”

This may well be a French thing, and, for all I know, reports of mild to moderate discreet undulations of the legs may tell French readers more about a politician than a juicy quote from Moliere. But Ms. Reza is also capable of the following insight concerning 100 “intellectuals of the Left,” who wrote a newspaper piece against Mr. Sarkozy’s candidacy:

“[They are] mostly writers, directors, actors, moviemakers, musicians, or simply ‘artists’. How uncanny for people whose eccentricity is the raison d’etre, whose freedom and sometimes glory consist in having evaded reasonableness, to shoulder with such furious gravity the status of an intellectual.”

“Furious gravity” is good. Perhaps only the late, lamented columnist Murray Kempton could have written a sentence so balanced, so still, so deadly in its pitiless understatement. This is Ms. Reza at her best, and there is enough of this kind of thing in “Dawn, Dusk or Night” for me to recommend it.

William F. Gavin, a writer living in McLean, comes by his intimate knowledge of France from watching old films starring Jean Gabin.

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