Public Enemies is the record of twenty-eight letters Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectual, and Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, exchanged between January and July of 2008. The letters are precisely dated, and a few of them contain salutations, but they otherwise bear little resemblance to the kind of letters you or I might write. There is no gossip. There is no weather. There is no talk of lovers or travel plans or works-in-progress, and scant talk of friends. Sarkozy comes up once—and then twice more when they discuss why, after all, it was better not to have brought him up more often. At one point Houellebecq actually apologizes for not being vaguer: “Okay, I’m sorry for reducing the issue to the specific, but there are some questions on which I tend to think pragmatically, though I’m embarrassed to admit it.” He doesn’t need to apologize again.
Because they leave out so much, the letters do not feel, so to speak, lived in, and reading them one begins to miss the sociable white noise of life’s minor goings-on. Correspondence is not really the right word for Public Enemies. Nor is it, as the promotional material would suggest, the literary answer to a prizefight; the correspondents mostly treat each other with kid gloves. Public Enemies belongs instead to a genre both odder and more arid, an undisciplined hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and apercu, all composed in a key of complaint. “Someone has a little bile, a little sad passion they need to vent?” Houellebecq says. “Well, there are people you can dump on; Bernard-Henri, for example. And Houellebecq, yeah, not bad, a lot of people are dumping on him these days.” “In the end it all adds up,” Levy says, “and I can assure you that it outweighs the pile of shit that our enemies would like to bury us under.” Indeed, Public Enemies is a book much preoccupied with dumping and shit-piles and parasites, “the microparasites who can—literally—no longer survive without me.” Levy and Houellebecq hold these microparasites—their critics—in contempt. But as Houellebecq himself asks, “how effective is contempt when you are attacked by a tapeworm?” Strange to say, the tapeworm question haunts the book, and gives a measure of its limitations.
Bernard-Henri Levy, who goes by BHL, is the author of several books of philosophical nonfiction and a novel. He has made a name for himself as an intrepid humanitarian who invokes the wisdom of people like Jacques Derrida in reports from places like Darfur. BHL, who is married to an actress with a famous family, is also the kind of humanitarian whose brand of pomade distracts attention from his advocacy work. (A journalist once summed up his philosophy as “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.”) For many in France, he is the personification of champagne socialism, a wealthy and glamorous man who sermonizes to the educated classes on the insignificance of wealth and glamour. Houellebecq has different problems. A former civil servant, he approves of Sarkozy, smokes four packs a day, and lives in rural Ireland. “I am about as ill adapted as it is possible to be for a public role,” he declares toward the end of Public Enemies. Houellebecq is the most famous novelist in France—last year’s La Carte et le Territoire won the Prix Goncourt—yet he is perhaps less well known for his novels than his causticity on the subjects of sex and Islam. This causticity informs the novels but is not confined to them. In a 2001 interview Houellebecq called Islam “the stupidest religion” and was charged with incitement of religious hatred; he was later acquitted in court. As for women, his “reputation for getting drunk and making passes at his female interviewers” is widespread enough to have warranted nervous mention in the introduction to his recent Paris Review interview (again, a false alarm: the interviewer described his actual conduct as “whimsical and charming”).
So both men have image problems. As BHL says midway through the book:
You could bring all the legal actions you wanted and for some people you’d still be only a nauseating matricidal killer, a racist and an Islamophobe. I could attempt to set the record straight in every possible and conceivable way and I would only strengthen their case that I’m a bourgeois bastard who knows nothing about social questions and takes an interest in the world’s disowned only in order to promote himself . . . It’s your reputation that’s your destiny.
BHL and Houellebecq were not close when they began writing one another. It does not seem that correspondence brought them significantly closer. As Houellebecq puts it in the opening letter, “We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Contemptibility is an unconventional foundation for friendship, and indeed these letters are no friendship-building exercise. What they are is hard to say. The agreed-upon purpose of the correspondence is to investigate the ill will its authors have aroused worldwide. This conceals, thinly, a great project of the ego, which is for Houellebecq and BHL to place themselves in the same category as France’s illustrious public enemies past: Voltaire, Baudelaire, Flaubert.
But BHL is no Baudelaire, and this agenda, thankfully, is not adhered to. In fact they pursue it so slackly and distractibly that it quickly recedes into the background, to be overtaken by other, stranger dramas. The book is better for this. Some readers will be stirred by the discovery that BHL considers his “ego” “fireproof, shatterproof,” and that he likes to make love in a state of lucid wakefulness, whereas Houellebecq prefers to be a little out of it—to do it in “the early hours, half asleep.” Others (all, perhaps) will be amused by the sheer Frenchness of BHL’s claim that only writing and love (“and I mean that in the strict sense, in the sense of loving women”) make life worth it: “Why do you write? Because you can’t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can’t write all day.” Yet these indiscretions, bite-sized and obvious, are not nearly the most interesting things in the book. Aside from the menace of the press, the two cannot touch a subject without sparking into disagreement, and they do it with entertaining regularity in Public Enemies. Though they range over much (metaphysics, aesthetics, reasons for writing, reasons for being), politics, predictably, is the only topic to tinge the letters with incivility. BHL, a humanitarian, definitionally believes in basic human dignity. Houellebecq, who is a quietist, doesn’t. He recommends a “bacterial” view of humanity, and goes so far as to wonder if the species wouldn’t be better off expunged. Houellebecq thinks the fundamental phenomenon of life is irreversibility, “the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay.” BHL thinks it’s love.
Their most interesting clash, however, has to do with style and self-presentation. Following the example of his self-made, solitary father, BHL has become, in his own account, a hardcore keeper of secrets. “I’m a real neurotic when it comes to secrecy,” he says. And soon after: “secrecy was as indispensable to me as the air I breathe.” At one point he actually scolds Houellebecq for “surpassing yourself when it comes to enormous, provocative confessions that will give the blabbermouths something to talk about.” Yet just as BHL is not a little bombastic about his “horror of bombast,” so he paradoxically effuses about his love of secrecy. Indeed, he blabbers on about it: “Without saying so, we all . . . dream of the ultimate mystification, the one that will render speechless those of our contemporaries who have been the least deceived and will allow us, poor clowns tired of our own comedies, to be reborn in a new guise, a new skin, another family novel, another novel period.”
It is difficult to tell whether this contradiction stems from lack of self-awareness or, more simply, the incoherence of bad writing. BHL is at least occasionally guilty of the latter. His metaphors, for instance, are so mixed and shambolic they read like parodies: “The shaft of light thrown by the work of words is the bright spot in the dark that finally nails down the idea.” Either way, Houellebecq, who declines to brag about his own elusiveness, is by far the harder of the two to get a read on. He is also the better writer. In these letters as in his novels, his prose displays the same blend of lassitude and lyricism, the same vexed sensitivity to modern life, and here as there it is a pleasure to read him. Houellebecq makes music out of scorn. He describes the “Soviet-style displays of enthusiasm by those in charge” of little poetry journals and, more stingingly still, the prose of another writer:
Everything about the man rings false, his every sentence oozes speciousness and affectation. The restrained emotion, the walks across the moors ‘lashed by the bitter wind’ . . . you feel like you’re in a BMW commercial
Scorn, however, is not Houellebecq’s best or only key. Here he is, with loopy splendor, on existence:
We are only passing through here on earth, I understand that perfectly now; we have no roots, we bear no fruit. In short, our mode of existence is different from that of trees. That said, I’m very fond of trees, in fact I’ve come to love them more and more; but I am not a tree. We are more like stones, cast into the void as free as they are; or if you absolutely insist in seeing the glass half full, we are a little like comets.
BHL is a game and expressive writer, and his activism seems sincere, but he strangely comes off as less serious, as buffoonish even, compared to Houellebecq. At any rate, it is Houellebecq that has the most memorable line in this odd, aggrieved, surprisingly entertaining little book: “If someone believes they know me, they are simply lacking information.”