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War of the Words

In a newly published exchange of letters, Goncourt-winning novelist Michel Houellebecq and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy prod, parry, and spar

Barry Gewen
November 09, 2010
Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy promoting their book of letters on French television after its publication there, two years ago.(Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)
Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy promoting their book of letters on French television after its publication there, two years ago.(Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)

When matter collides with antimatter, you get an explosion. When France’s most prominent moralist collides with its most prominent anti-moralist, you get Public Enemies, a collection of 28 letters written between January and July 2008 by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and the novelist Michel Houellebecq, announced yesterday as this year’s winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize. The book began with a serendipitous encounter in a hotel that turned into a conversation about the death of intellectual life and then into an extended correspondence. It was a major bestseller in France, where the two men are widely admired and reviled—Houellebecq for novels that are viewed by his critics as amoral, nihilistic, racist, and pornographic; Lévy for his insistent, some would say hectoring, public stands against injustice around the world, and in particular for his defenses of Israel and the United States in a country in which anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism seem to be part of the standard equipment of the intellectual.

Houellebecq and Lévy enjoy nothing here like the celebrity that attaches to them in France. But for those who know their work, either valuing it or despising it, the idea of an encounter between the two men has an undeniable piquancy. What, after all, could these unlikely interlocutors possibly have to say to each other?

“We have nothing in common,” Houellebecq declares in the very first letter, as he fires an opening shot across Lévy’s bow. “A specialist in farcical media stunts, you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear. … A philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts, you are, in addition, the creator behind the most preposterous film in the history of cinema.” Lévy is the epitome of “champagne socialism,” he continues, whereas he, Houellebecq, is “just a redneck. An unremarkable author with no style.” Lévy refuses to take the bait in his response, instead calmly suggesting various approaches their correspondence might follow. And so the conversation begins.

Like wary pugilists, they take their time feeling each other out, jabbing, dodging, moving around. Houellebecq expresses his passion for literature, even down to Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Lévy remarks on his Jewishness, a theme he will return to in greater depth later. “There are Jews who suffer; I’m a Jew who fights … a happy Jew.” As media stars, they are accustomed to role-playing; each has fashioned a public persona so well-honed and familiar that it risks turning into a parody of itself, if it hasn’t already done so. When Houellebecq appears on television, he says, he assumes the guise of a “permanent guest,” with “a little shtick, with a few gimmicks,” that allows him to conceal his “innermost self,” making it “all but inaccessible.” Lévy says he hates revealing himself.

Yet one of the pleasures of this book is its personal revelations. Each man describes his background, his upbringing, and most notably the influence of his father, which seems to have been decisive for both of them. Lévy’s father, born poor in western Algeria, made a fortune in France’s wood industry. Houellebecq’s, from the French working class, was a ski instructor and alpine guide whose clients included former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. “Our fathers were clearly very unalike,” Lévy says, but that’s not true. Both of the older men cultivated a fierce sense of independence bordering on eccentricity. The elder Lévy was “bourgeois but despised the bourgeoisie … a captain of industry who disdained captains of industry.” He had no friends and by the end of his life was spending his days playing chess with a computer. Houellebecq père refused to associate with the other ski instructors or with his clients. “Here was a man who sacrificed everything in life, absolutely everything, to a single imperative: not being dependent on anyone.” In both cases, obviously, the father passed on to his son that same stubborn, unyielding sense of individuality—an individuality that in its less appealing moments translates into narcissism—together with an emotionally painful yet intellectually productive loneliness.

But such disclosures are mere prelude. The fireworks—the core of the book—arrive with the ninth letter and Houellebecq’s almost casual remark (assuming anything he says can be taken as casual) about modern Russia. He has recently been to Moscow, where the music of the early Beatles—“Love Me Do,” “Ticket to Ride”—has been discovered and enthusiastically adopted. Life may be hard for the Russians, Houellebecq says, “but they live, they are filled with a desire to live that we have lost. And I wished I were young and Russian.” This comment is a red flag waved in the face of the human-rights campaigner Lévy, who, in high dudgeon, reminds Houellebecq that Putin’s Russia is brutally repressing the Chechens. It’s a country that assassinates its dissident journalists, revives an anti-Semitism that is never far beneath the surface and “has the nerve to explain to the world that it has nothing to do with democracy and human rights.” This Russia, he says, “fills me with horror.”

Houellebecq, however, does not yield: “Russians certainly do not feel that they are living in a democracy; I think for the most part they don’t give a damn and who am I to disagree with them.” And so positions are staked out, swords drawn. “I have always felt the deepest mistrust for those who take up arms in the name of whatever cause,” Houellebecq writes. Who cannot sympathize with Lévy’s passion for democracy, yet, after our Iraq experience, who can deny that Houellebecq has a point, or fail to understand his disdain for moral crusades?

Houellebecq proceeds to tell a story about his father during World War II and the German occupation. The elder Houellebecq neither collaborated nor resisted. Like the vast majority of his countrymen, he was just trying to get on with his life. When two Resistance fighters killed a German officer in the Paris Metro, he said of the act that it was “not very interesting.” This unwillingness to take a stand, this unheroic, apolitical quietism, was in some sense bequeathed to the son, who says: “I have infinitely sympathized with, felt and finally embraced the maxim of Goethe: ‘Better an injustice than disorder.’ ”

Now Lévy’s hair is on fire. Houellebecq has challenged his very raison d’etre, struck not at his heart but his soul. If not to battle injustice, what is the point of living? Houellebecq’s anecdote about his father is “unacceptable” because it suggests a moral equivalence between the French resisters and the German occupiers. That’s bad enough, but it’s the line from Goethe that really sets him off. What about Dreyfus? What about the Tibetans? Goethe’s remark excuses every kind of complacency, justifies every injustice. “I hate that line. … It’s a line that kills, it’s the most odious line of all time.”

Houellebecq refuses to be a battler for justice in Lévy’s mold. He wants only to be left alone to selfishly pursue his modest vices. Men are not “morally admirable” creatures, he tells Lévy; they are all too ready to form a mob, to turn themselves into savages for the sake of some cause or movement. Later, Houellebecq will compare mankind to bacteria, an image Lévy rejects as misanthropic and “repugnant,” but Houellebecq has already twisted the knife with a paradox that must have caused Lévy immense pain: “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 who advocate heroism; but I know my peers and that’s precisely what will happen.”

This argument never comes to a resolution. It dribbles out, to be picked up a few letters later, dropped again, then resurrected in a different form. Public Enemies isn’t a rigorous or coherent book. Lévy and Houellebecq contradict themselves, digress, make logical and illogical leaps. A letter that concludes with a discussion of hatred is followed by one about Cocteau’s eczema. There are long passages, like Levy’s description of an encounter with Louis Aragon, that will be of limited interest to most American readers. And at times each man seems intent on proving that he is the more self-pitying. “Few other writers are abused as much as I am,” Lévy says early in the correspondence. “If anyone in France right now has the right to be paranoid, it’s me,” Houellebecq writes in one of his last letters. Lévy is not wrong when he observes that paranoia “casts its shadow … over this correspondence.”

Like any conversation, this one has unstructured ebbs and flows. It’s like a late-night undergraduate bull session, except that in this case the participants know what they are talking about. When they mutually rhapsodize about the occupation of writing, you believe both of them, even though the committed intellectual Lévy and the quasi-aesthete Houellebecq have very different allegiances and aims.

And like a bull session, the book touches on all the big subjects: politics, culture, philosophy, religion—especially religion. It’s surprising to learn just how much his Judaism means to Lévy, a secular Jew who never entered a synagogue before he was 25. He calls himself a “positive” Jew who has taken a “journey back,” but for him Judaism is neither a body of doctrine nor a set of rituals, not even a source of identity. Instead, it’s “a way of living,” a plunge into the world of human affairs; “its real concern is man’s relationship not with God but with his fellow man,” he says.

For his part, Houellebecq says he doesn’t believe in God (“though I implicitly recognize a certain validity in the Jewish destiny”). Nonetheless, if we can accept “God is dead” as a religious statement, then Houellebecq is religious, perhaps even more so than Lévy. For Lévy can lose himself in his humanitarian ideals, the work he does on behalf of others (heaven is other people?), whereas Houellebecq, trapped in the carapace of his atomized being, confronts the void on his own. As a dedicated reader of Pascal, he takes the idea of God very seriously: “A world with no God, with no spirituality, with nothing, is enough to make anyone freak out completely,” and in his work, in his life, he’s constantly reaching for the Absolute —even though there’s no Absolute for him to reach for. No wonder he’s depressed.

Near the end of the book, Houellebecq tells Lévy, “our letters have become one of my few joys.” Lévy says something similar. So, what do these two men who have “nothing in common” finally have in common—besides celebrity, paranoia, and a legacy of independence inherited from their fathers? Lévy lists a few items, including “a joyous love of reading” and “pessimism without rancor.” But he also mentions “the animosity they inspire,” and that seems to be the key. The book is appropriately titled Public Enemies. Each man stands outside of society, prodding, poking, hounding his countrymen to lift themselves out of the unreflective routines of their daily lives. What Lévy asks of his fellow men is easy to understand, even if it’s not easy to attain: a commitment to justice, at all times, in all places. Houellebecq demands something that is less easily defined: an awareness of existence that is authentic and honest even if it is ugly. “I hold a mirror up to the world,” he says, “but the world does not find its reflection beautiful.”

One thing they discover in the course of their correspondence is that although they may be very different in their ideas and their approaches to life, they have the same enemies. Of course they do. Not many people want to take on the burdens Lévy and Houellebecq demand of them. Insisting that people live up to their human responsibilities, pointing out the limitations of the world as it exists, is a job that used to be reserved for priests and rabbis, but now it’s performed by self-appointed prophets and self-hating clowns. There is something of the prophet in both Lévy and Houellebecq—and also something of the clown.

Barry Gewen is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.

Barry Gewen is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.