De Man? Paul de Man? Like the retired Pontius Pilate when asked about Jesus Christ in Anatole France’s story “The Procurator of Judaea,” many readers today would answer, “I cannot call him to mind.” But in his heyday, from the late 1960s through the early ’80s, de Man was — with the possible exception of his Yale colleague Harold Bloom — this country’s dominant figure in literary studies. His critical writing, which is all but impenetrable to the uninitiated, was then regarded as sacred writ, and de Man himself was the object of almost cult-worship, the messiah of “theory.”

But, as Evelyn Barish writes in the first sentence of this riveting, if melodramatic, biography, “Paul de Man no longer seems to exist.” Why? Four years after his death in 1983 at age 64, this ascetic, revered professor of comparative literature was discovered to have been a Nazi collaborator during his youth in World-War-II Belgium. In particular, he worked as — sigh — a book reviewer for an anti-Semitic newspaper.

The “revelations,” as they came to be called, sent shockwaves through the academy. Supporters argued that de Man had only written one truly offensive article — “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” — and was just 21 when it appeared on March 4, 1941. All who knew him in later life agreed that he wasn’t in the least anti-Semitic.

Reportedly “magical” in the classroom, de Man could effortlessly tease out the unspoken implications of a poem or piece of prose. Add in weary good looks, well-cut suits and a rigorously austere intellectuality, and it is little wonder that listeners often felt themselves in the presence of “a great man.” Perhaps so. But then all the best teachers are performance artists.

Born into a well-off Belgian family, de Man was an outstanding student in high school. Yet his home life was like something from a Tennessee Williams play. His businessman father spent most evenings with a mistress, his mentally challenged older brother raped their 12-year-old cousin, and his depressed mother eventually hanged herself in the attic.

’The Double Life of Paul De Man’ by Evelyn Barish (Liveright. 534 pp. $35). (Liveright)

At the Free University of Brussels, young de Man flunked most of his courses and never did graduate. Instead, he helped edit a cultural journal and soon fell under the influence of his uncle, Henri de Man, a charismatic politician and ladies’ man. Following the German invasion, the former socialist-turned-fascist collaborator became for a period the most powerful Belgian in the country.

In Barish’s view, Paul de Man, like his uncle, saw in the occupation not a nightmare but an opportunity. Ambitious and power-hungry, he allied himself with Nazi sympathizers, rose quickly as a complaisant journalist and even imagined that he might one day become minister of culture for the new Europe.

In his dishonorable activities, de Man was apparently encouraged by his high-maintenance mistress and eventual wife, Anne Baraghian. As Barish stresses, during the war the handsome couple enjoyed all the more obvious perquisites of wealth and Nazi benevolence: They dressed and ate well, inhabited a luxury apartment and entertained lavishly.

After the German defeat, de Man managed to avoid prosecution as a war criminal, perhaps because he was too small a fish to bother with. He then persuaded his father and some others to invest in a ritzy publishing house called Hermès. Rather than building up his new business, the high-living de Man instead bled it dry, eventually defrauding everyone, including his old nurse, who had invested her life savings. When his defalcations were discovered in 1948, good old dad — whom he never saw again — paid for his son to flee to the United States.

Before long the penniless yet resourceful fugitive had talked his way into New York intellectual circles, soon becoming a protégé, and possibly the lover, of Mary McCarthy, who helped him land a job teaching French at Bard. There he fell deeply — and permanently — in love with a student, Patricia Kelley. When Anne balked at a divorce, de Man simply pretended that their marriage had been dissolved and bigamously wed the now pregnant Kelley. (Only a decade later were they able to marry legally.) Afterward, de Man essentially never saw his first wife and their three children again. They were part of a past he wanted to bury.

Despite immense popularity with students, de Man wrecked his career at Bard by subletting a house from the head of the French department and then never paying the rent. Still, he used Bard contacts to gain a toehold at Harvard, where, after possibly falsifying his University of Brussels transcript, he was admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature. During the next few years, he emerged as a star student, published his first ground-breaking articles and regularly and blithely flouted all the usual academic requirements. Yet people consistently bent the rules for him: After all, he was so smart and so dashingly European. Barish ends her book in 1960 as de Man finally starts his academic career as an associate professor at Cornell.

To read “The Double Life of Paul de Man” is to be swept up in the story of a smooth-talking operator, as boldly daring as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, as irresponsible as any scofflaw husband who deserts his family. But is this really Paul de Man? Even now it’s hard to square so damning a characterization with the kindly figure his friends and colleagues knew and cherished. Still, who can say? Two members of my own dissertation committee, both Jewish, were former students of de Man: One repudiated him, the other is still his admirer.

Significantly, de Man’s approach to literature denied the importance of history and biography, underscored the slipperiness and unreliability of language, and rejected traditional humanistic criticism as naive. One shouldn’t, in effect, trust texts any more than people — they are porous, pockmarked with gaps and silences that can be more revealing than the actual words on the page.

Evelyn Barish’s biography is sensational — but in both meanings of the word. It also repeats the same quotations, anecdotes and details over and over. Does it, however, present the truth about Paul de Man? An impossible question, as Pontius Pilate knew. Yet even given the worst-case interpretation of his youth, de Man’s later career seems to show, in Tennyson’s apt and lovely words, that “men may rise on stepping-stones/ Of their dead selves to higher things.”

Dirda reviews books for Book World every Thursday.


By Evelyn Barish

Liveright. 534 pp. $35