public enemies? more on houellebecq and bhl’s correspondence

Houellebecq and Levy believe their own hype

The odd couple of French literature are disliked because they are public figures first and writers second

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy 

The odd couple … Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy.
Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

In Public Enemies, his recently published correspondence with Left Bank philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (also known as BHL), Michel Houellebecq makes a somewhat touching admission about that moment in 1998 when his second novel Atomised began to get talked about: "I understood that I had a chance, a little chance to escape the world of work. I made with my hands and feet to widen the breach through which I had just seen a light. I did all the media, absolutely all of them."

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.

houellebecq & bhl: “always ready to bite… two real monsters who you love to hate” are “almost human”

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 
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."