ENNEMIS PUBLICS: A Literary Review by Simon R Gladdish
ENNEMIS PUBLICS (Correspondance Janvier-Juillet 2008)
By MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ & BERNARD-HENRI LEVY
Pub: Flammarion Grasset 2008 pp 333 price 20 euros
Where to begin? I think it was Shaw who said that you should spend hours getting your first paragraph exactly right and then delete it. I suppose it all began in Carrefour. My wife and I are staying in France for a couple of months and although our nearest shop is Shopi, the nearest shop worth shopping in is Carrefour. On our first visit I made a beeline for the books table and there I saw it: Ennemis Publics by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy. I was immediately struck by the cover which shows photographs of both protagonists. Houellebecq looks genuinely unhappy, grimacing and smoking a melancholy cigarette whereas Levy just looks smug. You can almost smell his aftershave. Bernard-Henri Levy or BHL as he is known here in France is one of France’s leading intellectuals or ‘intello’s’. He was born in 1948 into enormous wealth and has led a charmed life ever since. His daughter Justine Levy is a leading French novelist and his third wife, the actress and model, Arielle Dombasle , is one of the most beautiful women in France. When his father died in 1995, Levy sold the family company for 750 million francs (around 75 million pounds.) Like our own Martin Amis, Levy is at a loss to understand why so many people actively dislike him. It is no great mystery to me. It is called Jealousy and Envy. Levy is a novelist and journalist and although he keeps popping up in war zones he never quite escapes the sulphurous whiff of being a spoilt dandy. His narcissism is legendary and he often appears on French TV in designer suits with his expensive shirts unbuttoned to the navel.
Michel Houellebecq is more my kind of guy. He seems to be a genuine misanthrope in the tradition of Sartre and Camus. His literary heroes are Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who also happen to be my literary heroes. His own mother wrote a book recently in which she described him as a little prick and a talentless social climber and said that if he dared to write about her again, she would use her walking stick to smash his teeth in. Houellebecq first came to my attention with his novel Les Particules Elementaires(1998) translated into English as Atomised. I loved reading this book but all I now really remember is the comic obsession with sex and the world weariness. Houellebecq got into serious trouble with his next novel Plateforme (2001) which is essentially the reminiscences of a sex tourist but also contains some trenchant criticisms of Islam.
He was taken to court by a number of Islamic organisations and narrowly escaped being found guilty of inciting racial and religious hatred. He fled to Ireland to escape the possibility of terrorist reprisals. (I kid you not.)
Ennemis Publics, their joint book is a kind of literary duel. Each takes it in turn to write a letter of several pages to the other. The tone is set when Houellebecq writes ‘A certaines personnes, peut-etre, il est arrive de faire l’amour dans un etat de pleine lucidite; je ne les envie pas. Tout ce que je suis, moi, arrive a faire dans un etat de pleine lucidite, ce sont mes comptes ; ou ma valise.’ (Other people perhaps, have been able to make love whilst completely sober. I don’t envy them. All I have been able to accomplish while completely sober is to do my accounts or pack my bags.) Levy responds ‘Je peux faire toutes les mises au point possibles et imaginables: je ne ferai qu’aggraver mon cas de salaud de bourgeois qui ne connait rien a la question sociale et qui ne s’interesse aux damnes de la terre que pour mieux faire sa publicite.’ (I can give every possible and imaginable explanation of my work. All I do is is worsen my reputation as a bourgeois swine who has no grasp of social realities and only pretends to be concerned about the world’s oppressed in order to generate headlines.)
Together they discuss life, literature, their favourite authors, who they like and dislike in the French media, their families, childhoods and why they are both so disliked by so many people. One of the first questions Bernard puts to Michel is ‘Pourquoi tant de haine?’ (Why so much hatred?) Houellebecq responds by discussing the possibility of suicide. ‘La longue pente qui constitue la deuxieme partie de la vie: les degradations successives du vieillissement, puis la mort. L’idee m’est venue a plusieurs reprises, par suggestions breves, insistantes, que rien ne m’obligeait a vivre cette deuxieme partie ; que j’avais parfaitement le droit de secher.’ (The long slope that constitutes the second part of life : the successive degradations then death. The idea has occurred to me several times in brief, insistent suggestions that I wasn’t actually obliged to endure the second part; that I had a perfect right to skip it.) Levy doesn’t entertain the possibility of suicide. He could hardly be so lucky next time round.
The duo are initially rather wary of each other. Levy is a champagne socialist and Houellebecq a right-wing nihilist. However, by the end of the book they seem almost to have become friends. There is a very useful table of contents at the back which actually tells you what to expect in each chapter/letter. On page 260 for example:
‘On apprend que Michel Houellebecq considere que le roman est ‘un genre mineur’ par rapport a la poesie. Le ‘halo radioactif’ de la poesie ; le ‘pouvoir des mots’. (One learns that Houellebecq considers the novel ‘a minor genre’ in comparison with poetry. The ‘radioactive halo’ of poetry; the ‘power of words’.) Michel is a poet and Bernard-Henri is not.
I have A Level French and read Houellebecq’s contributions without difficulty. I had more trouble with Levy’s and often found myself reaching for the dictionary. On page 39 for example, there is a typical Levy sentence that lasts for fourteen lines. It is hard to imagine a comparable volume being published in Britain although a literary duel between say, Salman Rushdie and Will Self might generate some interest. Even so one can’t easily imagine an initial print run of 100,000 copies. In the land of Sartre and Derrida, the tradition of intellectualism or (some would argue) pseudo-intellectualism is alive and kicking.
Simon R. Gladdish Copyright 2009