November 18, 2011 10:04 pm

Public Enemies

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, giants of French literature, publish their six-month exchange of letters

Dear Messieurs Houellebecq and Lévy,

I shall never forget that dinner in Paris when you, the twin giants of contemporary French literature, who barely knew each other at the time, agreed to embark on a six-month exchange of letters. I was not present, of course, but you mention the dinner in this book-length result of your labours, along with a banquet of literary musings and personal details.

Had I been there, I might have cautioned against the project. Epistolary novels are difficult enough to bring off; epistolary epistles can be deadly, especially if the writers are writers. See novelist Thomas Mann’s exchange with social theorist Theodor Adorno if you ever have trouble sleeping.

To your credit, you manage to keep us awake through all your preening and puffing, soul-baring and name-dropping. Your countrymen were certainly amused, making Public Enemies a 2008 bestseller in France. It is now available in Britain, where you are not yet sufficiently well known to be disliked. This book may fix that problem.

Many thanks, M Houellebecq, for deftly explaining your motives, and the book’s title, in your first letter: “We have, as they say, nothing in common – except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Non-French readers might demur, given your friend Lévy’s three dozen, mostly erudite, books and his high-profile involvement in admirable causes from Bosnia to Libya. Or your own recent Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary gong, for your novel The Map and the Territory.

In France, however, you are both widely reviled. M Lévy – can I call you BHL? Everyone else does – you are derided for your media-saturated, champagne-socialist lifestyle and the bespoke white shirts that expose much of your perpetually tanned, 63-year-old torso. As for you, M Houellebecq, your old-git grumpiness (after only 53 years on this earth) and your run-ins with Islam and women have won few French admirers. Reluctantly but correctly, you describe BHL’s image as “a philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts” and your own as a “nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist ... an unremarkable author with no style”.

So instead of literary heavyweights in a fight to the death, you are two lost souls joining hands to smite your critics – by name – and luxuriate in your public disapprobation. Houellebecq: “We’re up to our necks in contempt.” BHL: “Few other writers are abused as much as I am.” Poor you. Perhaps your crimes are to be deliberately provocative and eager to court scorn, certainly in this forum. Or maybe you offend by pompously depicting writing as a sacred, painful duty. The very act of composition leaves M Houellebecq in “a state of nervous exhaustion that requires several bottles of alcohol to get out of”. The rest of us, who accomplish our lesser works mostly without such aids, are not sympathetic.

You both are on safer ground when discussing other writers. Your observations on Goethe, Kafka, Baudelaire, Camus, Sartre, Céline, Robbe-Grillet, Flaubert, Proust, Pessoa and a pantheon of others are informed and penetrating, though Hugo is not as bad as you paint him. BHL’s sermon on the writer’s obligation to champion a more just world is stirring, as is Houellebecq’s defence of poetry.

Better yet, BHL, your friend’s novelistic interest in character rubs off on you, prompting some fine reminiscences – such as the nights your impoverished younger self spent sleeping in a Paris café until, out of the blue, the great writer Louis Aragon walked in and offered work. And who, dear Houellebecq, could fail to be touched by your own hardships: the emotionally distant father, your nutcase of a mother, the dead-end jobs, the painful eczema? You have both paid your dues, and you recount the process with charm and humility. But do you really need to discuss your love-making preferences in such detail?

These flaws are redeemed by the most pleasing feature of your letters: their infectious erudition. You cite scores of books, authors, events and controversies that are far beyond the ken of the average Anglo-Saxon reader. And yet you make them sound well worth pursuing. You inspire a determination in us all to finish Proust, finally, and dig into Dürrenmatt, Malraux and Romain Gary as well. So I withdraw my warning about the fatuity of long-distance fencing, and instead close with an envoi of advice: next time less commiserating, more footnotes.

Yours truly, etc, etc.

Donald Morrison is author of ‘The Death of French Culture’ (Polity)

Public Enemies, by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Atlantic, RRP £19.99, 320 pages

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