Houellebecq and Levy believe their own hype
The odd couple of French literature are disliked because they are public figures first and writers second
One sympathises. But when a writer scrabbles his way to the light of the oncoming train that is fame, he could do worse than harken to Cyril Connolly’s rumble from The Unquiet Grave: "A public figure can never be an artist and no artist should ever become one unless, his work being done, he should choose to retire into public life."
I say this not so much thinking of Houllebecq’s post-Atomised retirement into music, soft porn films, documentaries, obnoxious public statements on Islam or mai 68, since he must have at least enjoyed himself. All this noise, however, doesn’t disguise the fact that from his sloppy travelogue Lanzarote, to the passable mess that is Platform, to the dismal The Possibility of an Island ("my best work" he concludes), Houellebecq, from being a very good writer, has become a shoddy one.
Whereas Atomised was sad but fun, 10 years on only a vinegary disdain remains. Whether lamenting the loss of friends revolted by his media excesses, or contemplating suicide as a way to silence the snickers of satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, his lack of self-awareness is increasingly predictable. There is little sense of reality in a man who muses over "the vaguely Christlike aspect my destiny has taken."
Fortunately relief is provided by BHL. Acting like a teacher who has decided to take the unpopular class slug under his wing, he provides this book with a not unwelcome sensation that a friendship is blossoming. A brilliant graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieur who made his name in the 70s teaching the French leftlessons in morality as it persisted in supporting the Soviet Union, he regales Houllebecq with tales of scraps outside pubs in Saint Germain with PLO militants, communists, and sundry outraged lefties. For all his famously derided vanity and fluffy hair, BHL is an engaging, informative and dynamic foil to Houellebecq who, with all the energy of a Parisian décadent, is soon exhausted and glum once he has cocked a snook at the pieties of the French left, including an endorsement of President Sarkozy. "Sarkozy loves France," he offers, and then rolls over.
Nevertheless, there is something unreal about BHL too, not least his "philosopher" appellation. BHL, though born in 1947, has a moral outlook shaped by the second world war, a war his father fought in and in which his intellectual heroes Malraux and Camus played distinguished roles. However much one admires his skill as a polemicist and consensus shaper, it’s puzzling nevertheless that he could be considered in the same breath as Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze. Even as an "intellectuel engagé" in the spirit of his heroes, he has yet to produce imperishable works of the order of L’Espoir or L’Etranger. Unless we decide tomorrow to startle British op-ed writers George Monbiot or Brendan O’Neill by calling them "philosophers", we should think of giving him a more measured job title.
Contemporary society does not have a strong taste for the proper measure of things though. Now that it’s possible to talk with a straight face about giving banks our money so they can lend us our money back, it might be useful to consider that in literature unreal economies also flourish. Trading off bright beginnings, Houellebecq and BHL have generated fame and wealth for themselves far beyond and above their artistic and intellectual stock. While one might have no time for the Parisian sport of deriding Houellebecq’s attempts at infamy, or gloating as BHL squares up to custard pies throwers, they are unpopular, I think, because most people have an instinctive, if not atavistic, respect for the arts and philosophy as a form of husbandry. To quote Connolly again: "The artist has roots that run a hundred feet underground in search of tea leaves, cinders and old boots."
Solitude and modesty are key words. No-one, as far as I know, begrudges the retiring Lé Clezio his Nobel, while busy BHL and Houellebecq are two public enemies who not only make the hype, they believe it too.