Swans Commentary » swans.com July 4, 2011  



The Big Schmooze Mail Call


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Lévy, Bernard-Henri and Houellebecq, Michel: Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World, Random House, 2011, paperback, translated by Miriam Frendo and Frank Wynne, ISBN-9780812980783, 320 pages.


"Great boast, small roast."
"The trick that always works is that of complaining you've lost when you've won."
—B-H. Lévy, page 205.


(Swans - July 4, 2011)   French cultural life is not alone in having slid to the bottom of the European hill in the last half century. Italy was down there to welcome it. Of the three Latin nations, only Spain has clung on and looked up. The ego-sodden exchange between two French media celebrities illustrates the national doldrums. Public Enemies came out in France in 2008 and its editorial success, an initial printing of 100,000, is a good place to begin an illustration of the tumble downhill of the intellect in France. With the two authors, the decline takes on flesh. They personify it.

For the world beyond Paris, Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy must be identified. The former is the novelist Michel Thomas whose assumed name a New York Times reviewer said we should pronounce WELL-beck. The latter is BHL to his public relations agent and half a million insiders in France. Lévy's father was a multi-millionaire and the young man had an elite Parisian education, enrolling at the École Normale Supérieure in 1968 where he read philosophy. He took part with revolutionary zeal in the May upheaval of that year and promoted Maoism for a while afterwards. Houellebecq (to go along with his pen name) was born to well-off parents. His Parisian schooling led to a diploma as an agronomical engineer and a passion for literature.

At this point we may forget the lifestyle detail of both writers. The artier French tabloids can be consulted on the enervated novelist ("weary pop star of the single generation") and the industrialist's son ("scarred veteran of public appearances and PR stunts"). What kick in here are the great French myths of the intellectual life. The depressive Houellebecq opted for Baudelaire's accursed-poet persona softened by André Gide's stance as a respectable teaser of the bourgeoisie. High-octane Lévy grabbed on to the man-of-action figures of André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. The rest is not history, but slapstick with the timing sprung. The famous role models, in their lives, first produced the goods. Readers talked up their flamboyance afterwards. For the Public Enemies the theatrics came first, and readers are still waiting for the masterpieces.

Houellebecq's trademark posture is that of a hung-over little-boy-lost. But his constant embroidering on his depression recalls an aged malade imaginaire who has nothing else to chew over with his cronies but his fascinating aches and pains. Meanwhile readers wait in vain for a probing of his malady to put beside William Styron's masterful Darkness Visible.

Styron said the term depression was "a true wimp of a word for such a major illness." Houellebecq's literary alter ego, who regularly butts into his fiction, is brazenly wimpish. Unlike other alcoholic writers, say, Charles Bukowski or Jack London, Houellebecq drunk doesn't break up the bar room or head out to sea at the helm of a yacht. He whinges.

His flagship novel and first major success was The Elementary Particles (Atomised in the UK). It was a manifesto, if that's not too strenuous a term for Houellebecq's pose as a nihilist slacker. The novel browsed through current sexual mores and touched on scientific matters in a cartoonish sci-fi way. It also harped on Houellebecq's pet whine, the inability of sons to love because their mothers neglected them.

The The Map and the Territory, which revisits these themes, adding reflections on the advantages of suicide, won the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 2010. (It will appear in English in September 2011.) The novel flatters a mean-spirited populism that is currently gaining ground in France. Houellebecq mocks Muslims and multiculturalism, says he "was always pro-Israel," and shows nostalgia for the good old days, which he imagines as a kind of 1940s Vichy-land full of hardworking, pureblood Gallic craftsmen.

Lévy is another kettle of warmed-over fish. The tycoon's son gradually shed his de rigueur schoolboy socialism. But he was too foxy to join the flat, glamour-challenged right. The Left Bank's reigning chic was still radicalism. He would combine his embrace of the market economy with tears shed for those who had been denied their human rights. They were invariably colorful, photogenic individuals in far-flung places. This would necessitate a Lévy flight to the rescue, often in private planes he had hired himself.

As someone who frolicked in the froth atop the ruling class, it was easy to extend his Sir Galahad role and stick his nose into French foreign policy. Here of course more than one grain of salt has to be shaken on the accounts he gives of himself. Lévy is a mythomaniac of great resource. But he actually did interfere in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, South Ossetia, and Benghazi, mainly on the side of the bombers. In all this Lévy was not so much following in the footsteps of André Malraux, as riding on his back. In his concern for human rights, he had been relentlessly stalking Albert Camus.

As a busybody (engagé) writer, Lévy based his impersonation on Jean-Paul Sartre. The flow of his books has been facilitated by his financial stake in publishing houses and periodicals. One can classify his writing as 1) personalized reporting that trolls desperately for deeper meanings and 2) books that he does not blush to call philosophy.

William Dalrymple is not alone in characterizing Lévy's reporting as superficial and ignorant. The distinguished historian of India was flabbergasted by the clichés Lévy retailed about Pakistan after a fly-by-night visit. Lévy, in his philosopher's hat, once sued two authors who wrote that, "In all his works and articles, there is not a single philosophical proposition." But philosopher Gilles Deleuze concurred: The philosophical thought of Lévy and his cabal of Nouveaux Philosophes was "inexistent." (Any reputation that remained to Lévy as a philosopher was laughed away in 2010 with his book De la guerre en philosophie. In an attempt to undermine the pacifism of Immanuel Kant, he quoted at length from a book by Jean-Baptiste Botul. But there was no Botul, a pure figment created in 1995 by a Parisian hoaxer. Lévy didn't know the difference.)

The Public Enemies also ape the French tradition of the exiled artist-thinker. Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia, Paul Gauguin in Polynesia, Claude Lévi-Strauss in Brazil and Marcel Duchamp in New York, the list is impressive. Houellebecq went for tax purposes to live in Ireland, which is closer to Paris than Corsica. Lévy has been everywhere on short hops, but never really lived anywhere but Paris. Celebrity needs an over-heated metropolitan salon from which its tinsel can shine forth.

The untruths of this book begin with the subtitle. Dueling, there is none. In a duel two adversaries face one another with their eyes wide open. Their intention is to draw blood. Neither WELL-beck nor BHL have eyes for anyone but themselves. If they attend to the man opposite at all, it's to catch at something he says that will allow them to turn their reflections back on themselves.

Moreover, to spill blood couldn't be further from their minds. Why would they want to harm their partner in this literary double act? He's the necessary pretext each has for talking about himself. Neither one, on his own, could escape ridicule if he published a free-standing hundred pages of self-adulation under his own name.

The lets-pretend exchange of letters makes it possible. They are not really letters after all. Why would two writers, both adepts of electronic gadgetry and both off and on in Paris, say what they have to say to one another in a book? They don't write for each other but for the customers that the 100,000 original print run was aimed at, a public hungry for lifestyle tidbits and celebrity secrets. The product in the shape of a book turns out to be two self-portraits whose complacency couldn't have been equaled by a belly-crawling sycophant.

And that's only one aspect of Public Enemies' unintentional comedy. Both writers see their other books as hard-nosed realism. They spread grit like the highway service in an ice storm. Yet when they write about themselves they handle the inner man -- "inmost nature" is a phrase they are fond of -- with fawning reverence. The "faults" they own up to are always indirect compliments. This poète maudit and his friend the human rights hit man wouldn't be out of place at your maiden aunt's tea party.

A mist of crocodile tears permeates Public Enemies. The two authors hold that they have been persecuted like no-one since Savonarola. They actually speak of "ravening packs" and "lynch mobs." Their method here is that of contemporary publicists. They wave their bloodied limbs and repeat the lie so often that it gains credence. In reality both are at the summit of commercial and media success. The worst that has come their way are a few snide reviews and an occasional shaft of righteous indignation from the French intellectual community.

But turning pages we begin to feel that the writers don't believe the martyrdom dodge themselves and simply use it as a hook to hang their rants on. Their hot topic is celebrity strategy. Lévy was born with a silver spoon in one side of his mouth. He gurgled his first effort of self-promotion from the other side. His golden rule has always been that any publicity is good publicity. That's why he can say on page 21: "In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof." Houellebecq, more subtle, undertands that in France there's an earthy taste for pricking the balloons of romance:

I find it extremely unpleasant that choosing to take the standpoint of selfishness and cowardice may, in the eyes of my contemporaries, make me more likeable than you that advocate heroism; but I know my peers and that is precisely what will happen. (Page 87)

Such is the tenor of Houellebecq's self-presentation, which operation is the driving force of their book for both writers. His pretension is not to be pretentious at all and to make debility his strength. He assures us he's physically on the skids, past his peak, easily unhinged, reliant on alcohol, incapable of battle, neutral in all conflicts, a simple "recorder" of what he has been told. How could a middle-aged French reader worried about his liver -- an ex-homme moyen sensual -- resist that bait?

But all the same Houellebecq's self-estimate follows that of his correspondent into megalomania. On page 65, he asks why France today won't accept his "pessimism," while it accepted that of Camus, Sartre, Ionesco, and Beckett in the 1950s. The answer is easy. France does accept his viewpoint. He's a prize winner and screaming editorial success. But his question is devious, putting himself, Houellebecq, among the immortals. He boasts of never taking up arms, while Camus, Sartre, and Beckett all took part in the underground Resistance, and Ionesco was on the run in the 1950s from a Romania where torture, imprisonment without trial, and judicial executions flourished. Furthermore the pessimism of, say, The Plague or Waiting for Godot is a world away from Houellebecq's embrace of slackerdom.

In Houellebecq's defense, it might be argued that he often speaks tongue in cheek and has an inclination for self-parody. Otherwise what to make of claims like this on page 41:

...no confession can ever exhaust the indefinite richness of my personality, that one could draw endlessly on the ocean of my possibilities...

Lévy knows naught of self-parody and never displaces his tongue. Sending himself up would risk confusing his audience who take his entire existence for one long theatrical. A ripple of humor, letting in irony, would undermine the show. For Lévy is essentially a showman always edgy about the image he's projecting. He warns Houellebecq to beware of "enormous, provocative confessions that will give the blabbermouths something to talk about." (Page 90) He admits to "a taste for performance" and for doing "what other people don't do, or if they do, to do it in some way that belongs to me alone." (Page 70)

As befits a publicist, Lévy's self-presentation is cruder and more direct than that of Houellebecq the accomplished novelist. He comes on corny like an adman:

Instead of writing my novels and real philosophical tracts, I've traveled the length and breadth of this vast world looking for wrongs to be righted and causes to be defended. (Page 72)

He goes on, Clark Kent fashion, to speak of his "immediate, mandatory, instinctive sympathy for history's victims, those it has ignored, its damned." There follows a jumbled list of far-flung places and famous writers that decorate BHL like so many ornaments on a Christmas tree.

With Lévy megalomania isn't reserved for rare spells of fever. He puts it on every morning like one of his never-buttoned white shirts. On page 71 he tells us how he was robbed of the Prix Goncourt in 1988 because his Last Days of Charles Baudelaire dared to criticize "horrible Marat" and the "abominable Robespierre," both dear, he says, to the Communists. He doesn't mention that he bought into the publishers' Grasset precisely to eliminate similar contretemps.

There are twenty-eight texts in the supposed exchange of letters entitled Public Enemies. A glossary in the final pages underlines that they really are letters lest we take them for the collection of personal statements they seem. The two do kick around lamely, quite academically, a few matters they actually differ on. For instance Houellebecq's conservative conviction that individual justice must on occasion be set aside for a more general good, and Lévy's progressive's rebuttal. But even here we remain well within the orbit of self-presentation.

This will also be true of the article-like set pieces or pages of memories. Lévy treats us to several pieces that could have come from leftovers in his bottom drawer. There's a long serving of stodge on the Roman philosopher Lucretius that would have had Houellebecq reaching for his Vodka bottle had he still been awake. Lévy speaks of his father who even when negotiating contracts for big money shows a progressive streak worthy of his son. He tells of his meeting as a young writer with Louis Aragon and his admiration for the poet, mixed as always with self-admiration. Houellebecq racks up an essay about writing and his foible for poetry. BHL comes back with another, more exalted, about how he lives for the sake of words alone. Pages are filled.

Houellebecq's façade of self doubt and strokes of humor -- a commodity unknown to Lévy -- make him the more palatable of the two. One can decry his deadbeat outlook, but it's easier to take than Lévy's over-rehearsed enthusiasm and constant name-dropping. Houellebecq also has the good sense to back out of philosophical debate. His dozy Schopenhauer is no match for Lévy's muscular Nietzsche. With only his faded memories of Blaise Pascal and Auguste Comte, Houellebecq, along with the reader, couldn't stand up to Lévy's encyclopedic windstorm of hot air.

The novelist's moment of hurtful truth comes when Lévy reads a newspaper article about Lucie Ceccaldi's forthcoming book. She's Houellebecq's estranged mother whom he has pictured in his writing as the witch who lit the oven for Hansel and Gretel. Her book is la Ceccaldi's two-fisted reply. Lévy's salving of his friend's embarrassment is a deft schmoozing operation. The octogenarian's viewpoint doesn't even get a look-in. But the unconscious humor of the situation is rollicking. Lévy rakes over two thousand years of literary history and concludes that there was never -- except those monsters in the Roman poet Ovid who ate their own young -- a worse writer's mother than Lucie Ceccaldi.

Houellebecq finishes with a few raspberries for female critics who dared to dislike his novels and preposterously exaggerates the controversy his work has produced. Why, he asks, hasn't someone written a book about the vicious critical reception of his novels? He even compares his "destiny" with Jesus Christ's, quoting the New Testament: "I have not come to bring peace, but war." (Page 279) You would think he was Galileo dragged before the Inquisition and not the author of a half-dozen novels sprinkled with sex scenes and whorehouse nihilism.

Lévy winds the book up with publicity for a mysterious journal he has kept "full of secrets, one more explosive than the next," but that we will have to wait for. (Page 290) And critics beware: he threatens to go back to novel writing after twenty years' abstinence.

Last of all he regales us with a look back to his childhood. In short pants he would retreat to a garden hut and pronounce countless versions of his funeral oration. His fantasy was that he had been a great man among the great. Clearly it's this extended spiel that he has been repeating ever since.

There's no doubt that the French view their literary tradition in a very special way. The nation, non-readers included, could be seated in a huge theatre while centuries of legendary penmen file across the stage. Each bows to a hand of applause. Suddenly Bernard-Henri Lévy rushes forward and with a leap usurps a place on stage. BHL then shouts down to Michel Houellebecq to climb up and he will use his influence to fit the novelist in. Houellebecq waves a limp wrist in refusal. He leans back in his red plush seat and says, "I'm no athlete. I've booked a sedan chair and the porters are on their way."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 4, 2011