PUBLIC ENEMIES by Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq

Book Quote:

“We have, as they say, nothing in common – except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (JAN 11, 2011)

Originally published in 2008 in France, the newly released English translation of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and The World doesn’t quite deliver the literary death match promised in the subtitle. That is, rather than a frenzied cockfight between two writers the French love to hate – the writers in question, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq are both controversial superstars in France –this collection of letters is something far better: a measured exchange between two thoughtful (and thought-provoking) writers on a wide range of philosophical issues. And while the letters lack the intimacy and the casual, almost incidental, handling of the abstract that often characterizes published correspondence–indeed, Lévy and Houellebecq aren’t friends; the correspondence was initiated with an eye to publication, a fact that mars the book with an off-putting self-consciousness – the exploration of topics as wide-ranging as the social and political obligations of the writer, the purpose and desirability of confessional literature, our all too human need to be liked, the perils of fame, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, divine breath and the life source, the void, the nothingness, render the book fascinating.

Of course, there will be those who pick this up for the notoriety of those involved.

Depending on who you ask, Michel Houellebecq is either a racist, misogynist, pornographer or a literary visionary who single-handedly revived the relevance of French literature. Despite their dark, nihilistic tone (Houellebecq has long waged war against depression), his novels are always bestsellers in France, and his controversial novel, The Elementary Particles, won the prestigious IMPAC/Dublin Literary Award in 2002. In 2010, he was awarded France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt— a honor many felt overdue – for his latest novel The Map and the Territory (scheduled to appear in English this September). In 2002, Houellebecq was quoted dismissing Islam as the stupidest of all religions and was promptly sued by a civil rights group for hate speech. A French court ruled that his statements were within his right to freedom of expression, but that didn’t stop many from denouncing him and his work as racist. And it isn’t just the media that’s attacked him: after depicting his mother, who abandoned him to the care of his grandparents, as a narcissistic hippie in The Elementary Particles, she came back with a memoir of her own, in which she calls her son a “dirty, little, bastard.”

For his part, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s notoriety comes from his immense wealth and overexposure. A rock-star philosopher (yes, there is such a thing in France) Lévy is so ubiquitous that the media refers to him simply as BHL. An Algerian-Jew, Lévy grew up in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, a privileged Paris suburb and attended the exclusive École Normale Supérieure. Criticized as much for his superficial thinking (he’s said not to have any original philosophical ideas) as his expensive suits and custom-made white shirts that he always wears open to expose his perpetually tanned chest, his libertine lifestyle provides much fodder for the tabloids. His most recent embarrassment involved the extensive citing of a Jean-Baptise Botul in his essay De la guerre en philosophie. As it turns out, Botul and his writings are a well-known philosophical spoof created by the French writer and philosopher, Frédéric Pagès.

With so much controversy surrounding these two, strangely enough, the most engrossing aspect of this book wasn’t the blows dealt to the French literary establishment. In fact, their claims to unfair persecution read as strident. Instead, I was moved by the importance of little moments, moments in which no one else would think to be vested with meaning, moments that reminded me just how unique and personal our own individual worlds are. For example, I wondered if Houellebecq’s father knew his son watched him so closely as he interacted with other fathers at the campsite (and concluded that he only entered into the society of those men grudgingly) or that his enigmatic assessment of two Resistance fighters killing a German officer in the metro as “not very interesting” would still puzzle his son decades later. And like them or hate them, these are two very powerful minds, minds at their best when discussing passions close to their heart: for Houllebecq, the primacy of poetry; for Lévy, the political obligations of writers, of citizens, to work towards a more just and equitable world. And at its best this exchange isn’t about the Michel Houellebecq or Bernard-Henri Lévy, the public personas. No, it’s about the intellectual passions of two men fortunate enough to have found, for six months at least, an equal partner in dialogue.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 10 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 11, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Bernard-Henry Lévy 

Wikipedia page on Michel Houellebecq

EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq 

Two writers who get along:

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes

Partial Bibliography:

Bernard-Henry Lévy (translated only)

Michel Houellebecq (translated only)


January 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: France, Non-fiction

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