The cultural whipping boys’ manifesto:
France has vomited on us for too long
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
The Guardian, Friday October 3 2008
Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq. Photographs: AFP/Corbis
France has often delighted in publicly thrashing its literary greats, from Flaubert and Baudelaire’s morality court cases to Françoise Sagan’s drug busts. But now two self-declared cultural whipping boys have joined ranks to express their outrage at being constantly "vomited on", ridiculed and victimised by their nation.
Michel Houellebecq, the award-winning novelist and ageing enfant terrible, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dapper leftwing philosopher, epitomise France’s love-hate relationship with its bestselling literary exports. In a surprise joint venture, they have produced a book of confessional letters to each other, raging at the vitriol heaped on them as the "whipping boys of our era in France".
The book, Public Enemies — released next week and seen by the Guardian — is being billed as the publishing sensation of the year, sure to spark a fresh slanging match with critics, some of whom are already talking of a work of staggering vanity and egotism, and a precious insight into the mind of French literary celebrities.
Houellebecq, France‘s most controversial modern writer, was hailed as the defining voice of nihilism after his novel Atomised 10 years ago. But he now compares the chattering classes’ hatred towards him to Nazism. He says his relationship with the French media is "total hatred", and a "war of extermination" is being waged against him.
He writes of a pack hunting him down and says his critics would love to drive him to suicide or stop him writing. He has no qualms about living in Ireland as a tax exile, and fears he can never again do public readings in France.
Despite trying to cut back on the habit of scouring Google for references to himself, he admits he is paranoid, adding: "If there is anyone in France right now with excuses for being paranoid, it is me."
Houellebecq also talks for the first time in detail about his parents, answering his mother, who recently published her own book calling him a "stupid little bastard".
In a literary scandal that gripped France, she took to the airwaves to heap insults on her son, who she gave to his grandparents to raise when he was a baby.
Houellebecq says he has only ever seen his mother about 15 times, and she conjured up a more radical "wickedness" than the "worst mothers in modern literature". He said his friends, on reading her attacks against him, asked why she had not simply had an abortion instead of giving birth to him. He calls her an "absolutely egocentric creature, of real although limited intelligence" and says he cannot even manage to hate her.
It might be that never having a mother "reinforces" one, he writes, but in a way that he would not wish on anyone: one can never take love for granted, and one has difficulty believing in it, remaining a kind of "enfant sauvage", never serene, never tame, "always ready to bite". He saw his mother’s book and press tour as being the media’s attempt to get at him.
"Why so much hatred?" asks Lévy of the vitriol also laid at his door. Known in France as BHL, he has attracted much mockery with his short white shirts and bouffant hair, as he has with his houses across the world, his glamorous wife and ventures into geopolitics, including work in Bosnia and Darfur and travels to Afghanistan as a French envoy. He says in the book that he has a "bulletproof ego", would have been a good secret agent, and compares the attacks against him to those on Jean-Paul Sartre. He also concedes that the "temptation towards paranoia" in the book of letters might be another "zone of folly".
Houellebecq, despite rage at discussion of aspects his private life, volunteers that he prefers to have sex in the morning when he is only half awake. BHL prefers "open eyes" and full lucidity.
The daily Libération said that what could have been a circus show of "two real monsters who you love to hate" in fact showed the writers as "almost human".
The Nouvel Observateur news weekly said that despite the writers’ "irritating" point of departure about their contemporaries’ hatred towards them, the book contained letters which were "strong, radical, even moving" as soon as the pair "consented to come down to earth" and provide confessions and snippets of memoir.
Michel Houellebecq to BHL
"Everything separates us from one another, with the exception of one fundamental point: we’re both utterly despicable individuals."
"When a country is strong … it accepts any dose of pessimism from its writers … In the 1950s France accepted people like Camus, Sartre, Ionesco or Beckett without flinching. But France in the 2000s already finds it difficult to put up with people like me."
BHL to Houellebecq
"What brings us together: the animosity that we inspire, that’s true; the intuition that makes us immediately smell the bad scent of the manhunt… But also … the certainty that in the end, it is us who will come out on top."
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