Public Enemies by Bernard Henri-Lévy and Michel Houellebecq

Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World BY Bernard-Henri Levy, Michel Houellebecq. Random House Trade Paperbacks. Paperback, 320 pages. $17.
The cover of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World

The history of French literature is rich in villainy, calumny, and public enemies. Francois Villon was a noted thief, and his famous call to universal fraternity (“Oh my human brothers”) was composed while he awaited hanging. The Marquis de Sade was jailed by five successive regimes for everything from poisoning a prostitute to inciting political unrest (the day before the storming of the Bastille where he was held prisoner, he stood on the ramparts of the fortress screaming, “Kill all the guards!” before getting so worked up he started yelling, “Kill all the prisoners!”). Lautréamont wrote about shooting shipwreck survivors and having sex with sharks. Verlaine shot Rimbaud; Rimbaud gave up poetry at age twenty to run guns in Africa. The Surrealists started all manner of things, including fist-fights. In the mid-1950s, when the French Ministry of Health put up posters all over Paris noting that L’alcool tue lentement (“Alcohol kills slowly”), Guy Debord and his partners in playful crime covered the city by night adding the graffiti response, On n’est pas pressé (“We’re not in a hurry”). Back at home, Debord wrote a memoir that would be published with a cover made of sandpaper and, more famously, a systematic indictment of the spectacularly vapid televisual society on its way.

This is the rakish heritage in which Public Enemies, the new book by nihilist imp Michel Houellebecq and Socialist socialite Bernard Henri-Lévy, was written—or, rather, published. The work began as a mystery. In 2007 the prominent French publishing house Flammarion announced a surprise book. It was to be a fiery exchange, a “duel,” between two famous figures. One was named (Houellebecq); the other was not. Houellebecq has called Islam “the stupidest religion in the world.” He has written books about sex that make you never want to have sex again—not because it is violent or grasping, but because it is merely an itch to be scratched by Thai escorts, truly an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. His second book of poetry was entitled Sense of Combat; when he did not receive the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1998, he called the winner “total crap.” In other words, he is far from politic, and far from polite. And so when Flammarion announced that this perennially scandalous figure was going to fight someone—in print!—it did not fail to excite interest. When his opponent —Bernard Henri-Lévy—was announced, that interest did not wane.

In short, Public Enemies seemed like it would be great fun. Two much-loathed writers—one bedraggled and bitter, the other telegenic and triumphal—having it out. Instead of the usual round of fair-play figures from the French cultural establishment denouncing the philosophical poverty of Henri-Lévy and the crass narcissism of Houellebecq, they would do it themselves, and doubtless do it better. Or, at least, so it was hoped.

The book is made up of a series of letters (or, more precisely, emails). In the first of these Houellebecq comes out swinging. “We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both pretty contemptible.” Houellebecq then calls Henri-Lévy “a specialist in farcical media stunts,” and says, “you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear.” To this he adds, “A philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts, you are, in addition, the maker of the most preposterous film in the history of cinema.” This seems promising! However, Houellebecq soon lowers the tone, and softens the blow by including himself in the calumny. Henri-Lévy doesn’t pick up the gauntlet of aggression and they soon set to sympathizing with one another. Instead of an epistolary cage match, a public showdown between two famously hated figures, they are two against the world, unlikely allies denouncing—by name!—all those who have been bold or petty enough to criticize them. What we find are a few striking images (Henri-Lévy meeting with Louis Aragon, Houellebecq wandering the Irish countryside), some surprising bits of personal trivia (Houellebecq prefers to have sex half-asleep, Henri-Lévy calls his own phone every night and leaves himself a message about what he did that day), and, of course, a few compelling insights. But not much more.

In Public Enemies Houellebecq is often winning because he is funny, open, honest, vulnerable—and, unlike Henri-Lévy, writes letters that feel addressed to the addressee, rather than the world at large. At one point Houellebecq says that he wants people to like him not in spite of the worst of him, but because of the worst things he does. This is exceedingly strange, or will seem so to most. But it is clearly not a pose. It is an emotion expressed with care, even confusion, and revelations of this sort are what is best about Houellebecq, and best about the book.

Public Enemies’ subtitle tells us that it is “a duel.” The disappointment of the book is that there is no duel, and no real semblance of one. Neither party is genuinely offended. They show up to defend their honor in a symbolic glade, at an imaginary dawn, and then each fires into the air. The interesting part is when they reload and start firing at the spectators. But that doesn’t last long either.

In an ideal bookshelf of French letters Public Enemies would be placed between the two works by Debord mentioned above. As much as any book of its century, 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle showed the shape of things to come, the ways in which the medium would become the message. Public Enemies is at once integrally about the society of the spectacle, and a crystalline example of it. It is about what Debord diagnosed in the sense that the two writers discuss their spectacular places in French culture, the caricatures of them made by the media, and the ways that they have entered into the game and responded to these images—the racist, nihilistic, coolly crapulent poet of flatness, the blow-dried, faux-revolutionary, idea-free philosopher. Public Enemies is also, however, an example of what Debord diagnosed—a book that owes its existence, and its moderate success, to a spectacular ruse. On its other side would be Debord’s sandpaper-covered Mémoires, scraping away the high gloss of Public Enemies’ spectacular superficiality.

Leland de la Durantaye is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (2007) and Giorgio Agamben (2009).