The Arty Semite

Bernard Frank: France’s Much-Missed Literary Wit

By Benjamin Ivry

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In 2006, when the French Jewish author Bernard Frank dropped dead of a heart attack while dining with a cardiologist friend at a fancy Paris restaurant, readers felt it was a fitting end for this waspish gourmet with a fine talent for conviviality.

Since his death at age 77, Frank’s articles on books, gourmet food and wine, for Le Monde and other periodicals, have been regularly reprinted and avidly enjoyed by readers. Now, an affectionate new tribute has appeared by French journalist Martine de Rabaudy, “A Season with Bernard Frank,” from Les éditions Flammarion.

After starting out his literary career in the 1950s by writing a handful of novels, Frank devoted himself to the genres of memoir and literary chronicle, offering mercilessly funny pen portraits of some self-involved French men of letters. Of the academician Jean d’Ormesson, Frank said: “He’s always joyful, always so self-satisfied that it would seem churlish to ruin his delight in being himself.” When French writer Patrick Modiano published a book of conversations with the elderly French Jewish author Emmanuel Berl, Frank wisecracked that Modiano’s “passion for old duffers is such that it almost reaches the level of indecent assault.”

Frank’s readers were also regularly reminded of his Judaism by his often-ironic recollections of wartime. For six years his family hid in the rainy, windy, snowy Cantal region of France, he wrote, “because the climate was better” than in Nazi-occupied Paris. Rabaudy underline how traumatic it was for French Jews like Frank to “go to sleep one night as young Frenchmen and wake up the next morning to find that they were young Jews.”

In 1955’s “Israel,” which Frank considered his most essential book, he mulls over these identity issues from the perspective of his own life. The eminent political scientist Raymond Aron tells Frank that for him, being Jewish means “not breaking the connection with other Jews around the world, or in Israel.” To which Frank comments that Europe’s pre-war Jewish population was “completely unprepared to be Jewish…any more than a stalwart soccer fan is prepared to be slaughtered in a stadium after he arrives as a simple spectator.” As Rabaudy observes, literature and Judaism were “two obsessive and interdependent themes for Frank.”

Opinionated and devastatingly convincing, Frank inspired and amused generations of readers, and might be surprised to find just how much he is missed.

Watch Bernard Frank chatting about books here and here.


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