Review: Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Public EnemiesPublic Enemies
Author: Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy
Published by: Atlantic

The French fight differently, or not at all, according to the short-sighted cultural cliché. Despite the flexible title of Public Enemies, and the manner in which it has been framed, this six months of correspondence isn’t “enfant terrible of French literature Michel Houellebecq in the red corner and journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in the blue”. They append “dearest” to each other’s names almost immediately.

The two public intellectuals do share a disdain for their particularly vocal critics. Unsurprisingly it’s the paranoiac Houellebecq, the nihilist supposing he writes “materialist horror stories”, who expends the most ink on the birds whose feathers he’s ruffled. And, since they are aware that these letters are destined to be published, it’s difficult to think that they’re using the occasion as anything less than a soapbox at times. While makes it a little directionless and humourless.

Yes, those expecting a Battle Royale between hypercephalic Frenchmen won’t be satisfied. So it comes down to establishing the point of compiling Public Enemies, and indeed the point of reading it. Francophiles and those smug about their classical education will wallow in each page peppered with Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Prix Goncourt, Proust and Parisian publishing houses. I’m not so blessed; the footnotes explaining this great thinker or the other that litter the bottom of each page were of little help.

If you’re reading it to satisfy your adoration, or even deep hatred, for either of the authors will find much fodder in the strident opinions found within. And profound philosophical gems appear with satisfying regularity, often plucked out of some truly ungraspable musings. But maybe, again, I’m not blessed with the capacity to parse half of their lofty thoughts.

The back cover claims that Lévy and Houellebecq cover “everything”; which regularly reduces to parental relationships, critical savaging, their own relationship with art (and writing, mostly writing). The ‘big three’ controversial subjects are largely absent. Sex – a regular device in Houellebecq’s writing – barely gets a look-in. Politics is dealt with abstractly, despite Lévy’s politically charged journalistic subjects. Religion? Treated more like personal history than philosophy.

Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy

Michel and BHL glaring like only the French can. Image: Getty.

Family, friends and enemies are paramount – Houellebecq often returning to his relationship with his father and his lack of one with his truly diabolical mother. Lévy is more prone to extended ponderings of their individual artistic legacies, and is pointed in comparison to Houellebecq’s wounded, baffled persona.

Yet, spending time with these two as they joust is thrilling even to a cultural Neanderthal like myself, whose eyes had to skate across too many names and works and references. Lévy, in particular, is adept at winding but relevant personal anecdotes, which are instructive more often than they are wispy or obtuse. And Houellebecq’s outlook is a curiosity, as much as he observes the world as somewhat of an Asperger’s-ish outsider.

Public Enemies’ purpose is surely to learn more about dear Michel and BHL than you might learn about yourself. Considering how it’s pitched as a battle of firebrands, they’ve given us the most cordial fight possible.

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