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Public Enemies

Two French intellectuals fight it out.

Let's hope Michel Houellebecq's Goncourt-winning novel, The Map and the Territory, stimulates British interest in this otherwise niche-sounding publication, since it richly deserves it. Bernard-Henri Lévy and Houellebecq are highly distinct writers and personalities and the idea of an exchange of letters between them is brilliant.

The reason the British insist ever more stridently on their monopoly of eccentricity is their counter-cultural conformism. Quirkily creative one and all, we love our fellow "originals" even when they turn out to be oddly similar. Why? Because their little naughtinesses (Stephen Fry, Grayson Perry)disturb nothing. Houellebecq and Lévy, on the other hand, are the genuine article: nonconforming originals who provoke violent passions.

Much of the fun of these letters stems from their almost satirically contrasting characters: Lévy, the well-born playboy of the western mind and pocket Apollo, versus Houellebecq, the drunken, ill-favoured, lower-middle-class grouch. As Lévy parades his learning and sleek bare chest dandiacally across the world (his letters are mostly written from hotels), Houellebecq sits at home with his dog, sluicing and smoking to heroically self-harming excess. To complete life's unfairness, guess who inherited several hundred million euros and who lived in Ireland to reduce his tax bills.

Their disparate backgrounds show. Houellebecq emerges as a patchily erudite, amiably cussed fellow, a late echo of Dostoevsky's man from underground ("I am a sick man, an angry man, I am not a pleasant man, I think there is something wrong with my liver"). Lévy is the intellectual patrician, a gossamer-winged prodigy who has read even non-existent authors, such as the abstruse Jean-Baptiste Botul, a hoax figure he gravely cited in his book De la Guerre en philosophie.

Both are anti-bourgeois by definition and yet Lévy displays a kind of glittering suffisance (self-contentment), that supremely bourgeois quality: "My appetite for trying out destinies was so strong," he writes of his protean activities as a novelist, philosopher, journalist, film-maker and disaster tourist in the Balkans, Burundi and Pakistan (and now there's a book on Libya). His preferred destiny would have been as a new André Malraux, though his La Condition humaine is still awaited.

The terms of the exchange are friendly, though from Lévy there are moments of exquisite condescension: "Mon cher Michel . . . It's because I take the author of The Elementary Particles [that is, Houellebecq] seriously that I also take seriously this feature of Epicurean philosophy, which I'm sure you didn't just overlook." The reason this comes across clunkily in English is not the translation (which is excellent, by Frank Wynne and Miriam Frendo) but because no Englishman could ever say it.

Their main point in common is a habit of hotly protesting against their treatment by the media, while insisting with equal vehemence that it leaves them cold. Readers for whom tall poppies can never be cut low enough will enjoy their torments. Houellebecq will be damned to hell for being rude about Islam, while Lévy at his best is so frighteningly clever that, instead of trying to understand him, many will be tempted to murmur, "Off with his curly French head."

His brand of higher silliness can, it's true, be worse than our own, because of its intimations of profondeur. In a breathlessly described meeting with Louis Aragon, he claims to have confronted the poet and novelist about his "hideous loyalty" to the Stalinist French Communist Party (l'Humanité once rationalised the murder of the children of Stalin's victims, remember, on the grounds that Russian children matured early and could pose a threat): "His answer was strange, unexpected and rather beautiful: that all he expected from the party was an honourable decline."

This is bullshit, grand cru, especially from someone whose brave, anti-Marxist polemic La Barbarie à visage humain helped launch his career in the 1970s. But then, Aragon is still revered and when it comes to the great man theory, Lévy has form. Here, he calls Sartre “the man of the century" and, in his otherwise excellent book on him, Lévy defended Sartre's totalitarian enthusiasms in terms that are a key to his less fortunate reflections in this book:

Why have so many great minds said so many stupid things about the "new man" in Cuba, or China, or the USSR? Because, at the wellspring of stupidity is passion . . . Because, at the source of the most sophisticated ideological choices, before the great follies, identified or not, which allow us to say of intellectuals that they made a "mistake", we find simple feelings . . .

So long as you are a big enough name, in other words, and feel strongly enough, anything goes. This is star-fucking of a high, self-interested order. Lévy doesn't think himself the most minor of minds, so he, too, must be allowed his enthusiasms, his posturings, his excesses. While there are many brilliant passages here, we are free to discount with a smile some of what he writes.

On Islam, he agrees with Houellebecq about "Islamo-leftism, this grand new alliance between the reds and the new browns, of the axis which runs from Le Monde diplomatique to the death squads" (Lévy's words). Yet, unlike his correspondent, he "believe[s] sincerely that Islam as such is not at all alien to the spirit of enlightenment, democracy and freedom". A worthy sentiment, though, as so often with Lévy, a little too fervently expressed. "Not at all alien": does he believe it, sincèrement? Or is this another stance struck by a great and passionate mind, to which all is permitted?

In Houellebecq, it is the indolence so evident in his novels that can give rise to fatuity, as when he accidentally echoes Simone de Beauvoir, one of his pet hates, on how philosophy is ultimately just another form of literature. The truth mustn't spoil a good story, any more than Lévy's noble intellectual passions. Not that the grouch is without his insights:

What is humour, in the end, but shame at having felt a genuine emotion? It is a sort of tour de force, a slave's elegant pirouette when faced with a situation that under normal circumstances would provoke rage or despair. So yes, it's hardly surprising that these days humour is rated very highly.

However rich in irritations, this is a book that you don't stop reading. You can skip some of Lévy's pirouetting (Houellebecq sometimes admits he's baffled) but not the rest of these lively, fluently written exchanges. There is fascinating stuff on their childhoods (Houellebecq hates his mother and she him; Lévy's rich dad, a North African Jew, began humbly) but it's the free-form rooting around by two un-stereotyped minds that is compelling.
It's done with a measure of intellectual auto-eroticism - they're French - but for them, literature and philosophy are a living tradition, as ifSchopenhauer or Baudelaire were friends with whom you'd thrash out a point over a drink too many and whose works you were not embarrassed to quote for fear of accusation.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral