Them’s not fighting words

I hesitate to begin a book review by referring to the publisher’s blurb, still less to the puff-quote on the book’s front cover, but in the case of Public Enemies, a volume of correspondence between the novelist Michel Houellebecq and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, the temptation proves irresistible.

First the puff-quote: ‘Brilliantly done’ (Ian Buruma, New York Times).

Now, we all know the publisher’s trick of selecting one word from a mixed review to make it sound more positive than it is, but this, dear reader, takes the biscuit. For turning to the source of this ostensible endorsement we find that it isn’t an endorsement at all but the sarcastic conclusion to a sarcastic review that affects to treat the book as a joke. Buruma, in other words, is being ironic. For ‘Brilliantly done’ read ‘Wow, this is silly!’

That’s the front cover. Turning to the back, we discover a second instance of mis-selling, more serious than the first in that it relates to the nature (as opposed to the quality) of the book’s contents. The publisher describes Public Enemies thus:

In 2008, two of the most celebrated French intellectuals – Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy (‘BHL’) – began a ferocious exchange of letters. Public Enemies is the result … Never dull, always incendiary, this is one literary fight you can’t ignore. The sparks fly from every page.

This gives the impression that ‘public enemies’ refers to some enmity between the book’s authors. But it doesn’t. The enmity is not between Houellebecq and Lévy but between Houellebecq/Lévy and, um, the general public. ‘When all this has calmed down,’ writes Houellebecq, ‘some future historian will be able to draw some great lesson from the fact that we both, and at much the same time, have comfortably fulfilled the role of public enemies.’ What we have here is not ‘a ferocious exchange’ but an orgy of commiseration. It isn’t sparks that fly; it’s tears.

Such is the self-regard and self-pity on display in Public Enemies that the ‘future historian’ imagined by Houellebecq will have to bring in a future psychologist if he hopes to draw any lessons from it. I’ve never really understood the hostility directed at ‘BHL’. True, he can be intolerably pompous; but the founder of the Nouveaux Philosophes is also brave and principled, a friend to the Bosnians and the Libyan rebels when many on the left had abandoned them. As for Houellebecq, to whom charges of obscenity, racism and misogyny cling like a bad smell: at least he can claim to be laying bare the unseemlier parts of the human condition. No, the problem with Public Enemies has nothing to do with the many accusations levelled against its authors by ‘the pack’; it has to do with the obsessive self-scrutiny those accusations appear to have engendered.

Thus Lévy endeavours to understand his desire to ‘vanquish’ his enemies and his complex relationship with Jewishness, while Houellebecq writes of his need to be loved and of the burden of ‘shame’ he shoulders in his fiction. As the correspondence matures the missives grow longer, Lévy’s a crescendo of subordinate clauses, Houellebecq’s existentially clipped. Towards the end of the book, rather touchingly, both authors find that they have moved a little closer to each other in their intellectual ‘styles’. Houellebecq is a bit more philosophical, and Lévy ready to blow the dust off a novel abandoned twenty years ago. It’s all extremely gratifying. For them.

True, the authors lock horns on some things. For example, there’s a fruitful disagreement on the subject of liberal intervention of the kind which Lévy champions and Houellebecq, a confirmed isolationist, deplores. But these disputes rarely achieve escape velocity, weighed down as they are by the authors’ narcissism. There is also a worrying tendency to use conflicts in the ‘real’ world as metaphors for conflicts in the intellectual one, as when Lévy is advising Houellebecq on how to outwit his enemies in the press. ‘Move as much as you can’, Lévy suggests, before advancing the following analogy:

I would also like to point out that this strategy I’m talking about is the one recommended by antiterrorist police to those who, like my friend Salman Rushdie, have been objects of death threats.

That’s ‘my friend’ Salman Rushdie, mark you. But never mind the showbiz register. Here, the self-importance is all in the comparison.

There are incidental pleasures in Public Enemies. I can’t help liking Houellebecq and Lévy, despite their monstrous egotism. But in general the book is a big disappointment. Looking again at the publisher’s blurb I see that it contains the words ‘Never dull’. Given their cavalier attitude to sources, they can hardly complain if I discard the ‘Never’ and say that ‘dull’ is the mot juste.

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Public Enemies
Atlantic Books; $29.99; 309pp


First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.