Itâ€™s often said that a critic has no place christening contemporary works as literature; itâ€™s for future generations to decide which books will live on and which will fall the way of obscurity. According to this line of thinking, 19th- century Russians were just as incapable of heralding their literary giants as the ancient Greeks were of immortalizing Homer or the Elizabethans, Shakespeare. But thereâ€™s something in this argument Iâ€™ve always found hard to believe: great literature lives on not because itâ€™s incidentally suited to future tastes or historically informative; it lives on because it captures some of that elusive essence of what it is to be human, and while that universal quality all literature possesses is hard to pin down, to paraphrase Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it. Tolstoyâ€™s contemporaries knew what they held in their hands with WAR AND PEACE just as I knew what I held in mine the first time I picked up a book by Jose Saramago. So let me be clear: Michel Houellebecq is such a writer and THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND is a book that will be read for generations to come.
Originally published in 2008 in France, the newly released English translation of PUBLIC ENEMIES: DUELING WRITERS TAKE ON EACH OTHER AND THE WORLD doesnâ€™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 â€“ the writers in question, Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy and Michel Houellebecq are both controversial superstars in France â€“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 correspondenceâ€“indeed, LÃ©vy and Houellebecq arenâ€™t friends; the correspondence was initiated with an eye to publication, a fact that mars the book with an off-putting self-consciousness â€“ 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.