Sparring partners

A collaboration by 2 writers who have nothing in common, except savaging that both have encountered at the hands of French intellectual elite.

Frenchies_58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Let’s start with the subjects of this curiosity of a book. The first, a philosopher and journalist, is known as much for his crisp white shirts as he is for his arguments on subjects as diverse as Judaism and the Bangladesh war of independence. The second – a bit more more nondescript – is perhaps France’s most controversial novelist. He has been accused of serial racism and misogyny; but his recent book, La Carte et le Territoire won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, last year.
Bernard-Henri Lévy – he’s the one with the white shirts – and Michel Houellebecq are two of the most feted writers of their generation. Lévy’s strident fusion of reportage and philosophy has been influential internationally for almost four decades. Houellebecq’s books – including Atomized and Platform – have simultaneously enraptured and enraged critics with their bleak, nihilistic take on life, love and human nature.
All very interesting – genuinely so – but what in this convinced the two to collaborate on Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, an exchange of letters between the two published to acclaim in France in 2008, and now available in English translation? As Houellebecq puts it in his opening sentence, “Dear Bernard-Henri, we have, as they say, nothing in common – except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.”
Houellebecq is speaking tongue in cheek, referencing the savaging that both have encountered at the hands of the French intellectual elite. Lévy has been damned with the faint praise of being a “television philosopher”; Houellebecq is often caricatured as a misanthrope and race-baiter. But there is truth in his statement, nonetheless. The two men hold divergent worldviews; Lévy an optimist despite his undeniably wide experience, Houellebecq a pessimist despite his (selfacknowledged) more limited vistas.
Actually, the two do have something more in common, upon which they only too cheerfully expound in their first few exchanges: a keen sensitivity to the unfairness of the ad hominem attacks which they attract – hence the Public Enemies of the title – along with a rather odd blindness as to the qualities about them that attract these attacks, whether justified or not.
It must be said that both men – on the evidence of their exchanges, at least – possess rather extravagant egos; their early exchanges read as much as attempts in literary one-upmanship as anything else.
Lévy evokes Levinas, Houellebecq counters with Pascal. Lévy trumps him with Rashi – and both leave the reader floundering in their intellectual wake.
But one must be fair. Great writing is inevitably produced by great egos, from people secure in the belief they have important observations to share about their take on the world. The best writers are those who are as sensitive to the state of humanity as they are to its impact upon them as individuals; that is to say, great egos can be remarkably fragile too.
It’s the tension between these two competing influences that leavens interesting work.
While the book makes much of the simile of dueling – the cover features the two sparring with pens instead of swords – a more apposite comparison would be of two men engaged in a game of chess.
Both are cautious at first, probing gently yet firmly at the other.
They disagree politely about the state of modern Russia, Houellebecq commenting admiringly on the resilience of the Russian middle classes while Lévy rails at the crimes of “Putinism.” They have a slight more heated argument about the real meaning of Goethe’s much cited maxim: “Better an injustice than disorder,” Houellebecq states approvingly, to Lévy’s ire.
But just as the exchanges threaten to calcify into abstract and impersonal intellectualism, something more vulnerable and human evolves. Both men write affectionately, even movingly about the influence of their fathers on their respective worldviews; Houellebecq talks with startling passion about his strained – actually, nonexistent might be more apt – relationship with his mother. On this point at least, the two can agree: As Lévy puts it, “I’m not sure there is any greater harpy than your mother.”
They are both intensely passionate about the power of the written word: When Lévy says that he is unable to derive aesthetic pleasure from anything – lovemaking aside – if he does not intend to write about it, one knows immediately that he is deadly serious.
What’s in all this for the casual reader? There is the voyeuristic element that attracts one to any biographical work, of course. But beyond this is a genuine attempt by both to reconcile their public personae with their private passion for writing and literature and their contribution to public life. And in this, despite the detours along the way, the book works reasonably well. Public Enemies will not be everyone’s cup of tea; but for those who persist, it offers much to ponder.