BOOK REVIEW / Food for thought in France: Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt Univ of California Press pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
AS THE monarchy is to Britain, so intellectuals are to France: icons of the nation's heritage, tourist attractions (sometimes gloriously kitsch), and liable to do something embarrassing. Tony Judt's book mercilessly exposes the misdemeanours and eructations of the French literati, concentrating on the dozen years after the Liberation, when men such as Jean-Paul Sartre became - in Simone de Beauvoir's congratulatory phrase - 'France's chief export', and when their self- hating tongues licked the wounds of a humiliated nation.

This was a golden era for Paris's radical intelligentsia. But it was also exactly contemporary with the sanguinary political realignment of central and eastern Europe, epitomised by the show trials regularly enacted in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest. The thinkers of Paris, shrouded in the conviction that theirs was a universal consciousness and voice, for the most part regarded these events with 'neglectful uninterest', cut themselves off from this raw limb of Europe's history, and preserved their philo- or at least anti-anti-communist postures.

How, Judt repeatedly asks, was this possible? It was never the case that reports were lacking, as exculpatory memoirs and histories claim. To Judt, the post-war generation of French intellectuals (and his cast includes not only the familiar enrages, but less well- known ones, such as the Catholic Emmanuel Mounier and his consorts), though celebrated abroad for its free- thinking and heretical opinions, was in fact abjectly conformist, bowing readily to political dogma. To reconstruct this craven mentality, Judt returns to France's political and cultural traditions, and conveys with admirable economy and elegance the salient historical details.

From his title one might think Judt's focus overly narrow. In fact he has executed a sweepingly bold essay on a decisive but poorly interpreted moment in Europe's intellectual history. He quite properly reinstates French arguments into their domestic surrounds, but equally he reconnects them to their central and eastern European axes; the distorting parameters of the Californian or British university campus are cut away (he writes witheringly of the epigoni of French Theory, huddled into 'Foucault reading groups').

If the proper meaning of these arguments is to be gleaned, Judt suggests, they must be returned where they belong, to the heart of European intellectual and political dispute. It was the refusal of France's intellectuals to rise to the responsibility of their geographical and cultural location - to be truly, as Koestler believed France was, the 'burning lens' of Western civilisation - that makes for Judt their betrayal so unforgivable. When the harried and mocked citizens of the people's democracies in the East looked to France, they were spurned.

Judt massacres his villains, but he has his heroes too: Raymond Aron, Francois Mauriac, Jean Paulhan, and (for the most part) Albert Camus, men more measured and representative of a breed - the 'liberal intellectual' - whose conspicuous rarity Judt bemoans. His book marks an opening shot in a timely, profound revision of the significance of political and intellectual argument in France, and of its European consequences. For the story which Judt tells - and whose derelictions he so stringently castigates - did not by any means reach

its terminus in 1956